Still Recovering: The Story of a Residential Fire

The Velasquez Family

The Velasquez Family

On May 26, 2014 the house of Lick-Wilmerding students Yanni Velasquez ’15 and Keanu Velasquez ’17 in the Outer Mission/ Excelsior district burned. At 5:30 in the morning Yanni and Keanu lay in bed fast asleep. Keanu recounts the story of the fire that woke them.
“I hear my brother get out of bed yelling like ‘oh shoot it’s smoking.’ I hear him leave the room to check upstairs. I then hear my dad in the next room screaming. He is checking on what Yanni sees. By the time Yanni gets downstairs he yells out, ‘It’s a fire! We have to get out, Now!’ I am still in bed, not thinking it is something serious. Once I hear him say there is a fire I get up and look for my dog. She is right near me crying. I grab my phone and necklace right next to me and I also grab [my dog] Snow. I can’t see anything, it is just a room filled with white smoke everywhere. I try grabbing a blanket for Snow, and I end up grabbing a blanket under like a lot of other stuff, so it is hard to pull out. I am the last one to leave the house and I run out barely able to breathe. I am coughing from all the smoke. I have Snow in my arms and I cover her in the blanket. It is really cold and foggy outside, and my brother and I are in our undergarments. We call the police, as well as my mom, who had already gone to work. Within 10-15 minutes there are police everywhere. Fire trucks everywhere and everyone is gathering. All my neighbors are surrounding our house. There are also newscasters outside our house videotaping what is going on. My neighbor sees me and Yanni and takes us into their house as the firefighters are taking out the fire; they give us clothes and let us sit.”
In the fire that night the Velasquez family lost everything, except each other and Snow. In November of 2014 the family finally moved back into their rebuilt home.
How did the family manage the aftermath of trauma and utter loss? Through their own courage and resilience and the support of friends, family and community. Close friends invited them to share their homes. A campaign for financial donations was started by friends, including people from their middle school, Epiphany, and the Lick- Wilmerding community. Many donated gift cards to the Velasquez family. The Velasquez’s insurance helped them get an apartment to live in and to rebuild. Even as they move on, memories of the smoke and fire remain.
The fire at the Velasquez family’s house was sparked by faulty electrical wiring. According to the U.S Fire Administration’s national estimates for residential building fires, in 2012 there were 20,200 fires caused by electrical malfunctions, resulting in 210 deaths and 1,900 injuries. The cost to victims was over $814,400,000. Residential building electrical malfunction fires are only one of the many classes of fires that occur frequently all around America. According to the U.S Fire Administration national estimates, 374,000 fires occurred in residential buildings. In 2012, 2,385 people died in these fires.
Firefighters have been working hard to decrease the number of residential fires and damage from fires; the overall trends for residential building fires from 2003 to 2012 shows a 6 percent decrease in fires, 21 percent decrease in deaths, 1 percent decrease in injuries, and 2 percent decrease in dollar loss.
San Francisco is protected by 51 fire stations. Firefighters have very tough jobs. In San Francisco, in addition to firefighting, firefighters in engines and trucks — not ambulances — are generally the first responders to 911 calls for medical emergencies and provide care until an ambulance arrives. In a six-hour span firefighters can respond to over 13 calls. Becoming a firefighter is no easy job and working as one is even harder.
Mindy Talmadge is a Firefighter Chief’s Public Information Officer. Prior to this assignment, Talmadge worked out of Fire Station 5, located at 1301 Turk Street. Talmadge has worked for 20 years in the San Francisco Fire Department. She said she had not planned on becoming a firefighter, but “I was working at a gym in San Francisco where a number of firefighters worked out. One of the female firefighters approached me one day and told me that the fire department was going to be hiring and asked me if I would consider taking the exam.” At the time Talmadge had two small kids, but she went for it. When she took the exam, 6,000 people applied. Only 90 where hired; Talmadge was one of the lucky ones. Talmadge says that as a firefighter, you go home “knowing that you helped someone at probably one of their worst moments.”
Talmadge describes how she feels when she arrives at the scene of a fire: “Adrenaline is pumping from the time we get the call until we are at work on the scene. I would describe it as a sort of excitement. Then we become extremely focused and, depending on which company we are — the first engine, the second engine, the third engine, the first truck or the second truck — we constantly assess and reassess the situation and follow the protocol based on responsibilities of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in company.” As a firefighter, Talmadge is always on her feet and constantly running. When she is on duty but not on a call she is doing station house duties such as cleaning and picking up. She has district duties and assignments which include checking hydrants, visiting schools, and conducting area orientations and school drills. Talmadge explained that, as firefighters, they must constantly do station drill or off-site training to practice for certain types of fires.
Talmadge explains the procedure for a dispatch for a residential fire: “The very first thing we do is get into our turnout gear and make sure we are seat-belted in. We do not want to become part of a problem and we want to arrive as part of the solution. As the first engine on scene, we approach the building; the officer reports to the dispatch center the building type and how many stories as well as what is observed (nothing showing, smoke showing, heavy fire and smoke showing, etc.) and any potential concerns that other arriving companies may need to be aware of (wires down, no access from the rear, etc.).”
Each of the truck companies (first company, second company, etc.) has different jobs to do when arriving at a fire.
A firefighter’s primary jobs are life safety (making rescues that are obvious) and fire suppression.
Talmadge explains a job all of the truck companies have: “Everyone sizes up the building, looking for various means of egress, before we go in with our hose line. The officer and two of the three firefighters put on their breathing apparatus and gloves, deploy a hose line and make entry into the building. The driver of the engine operates the pump panel which regulates the water pressure in the hose (the engine has 500 gallons of water in its tank). Firefighters immediately locate and secure a source of water; usually the second engine gives the first engine a supply line and then they hook up to a hydrant and supply the first engine with water.”
Talmadge says that the first company to arrive at the scene must locate areas where ladders can be placed to give the first firefighters access. They also must identify multiple means of exit from the roof and from inside the building. The first truck responders also make sure that they get the ladders to anyone needing rescue from windows. Their primary responsibilities are life safety, laddering the building, and ventilation.
Talmadge illustrates a picture of the procedures of the first truck responders: “As the ladders are being placed, some of the members of the truck ascend a ladder to the roof of the building where they will walk the perimeter of the roof looking for fire, smoke, people in windows, extension of fire to other exposed buildings, and report everything to the incident commander. They will then proceed to cut a hole in the roof above the fire to release the super-heated smoke and toxic gases which make the environment inside the building much more dangerous for the crews inside. The hole also helps to prevent flashover.”
According to the Probationary Firefighters Manual, flashover is defined as “the sudden involvement of a room or an area in flames from floor to ceiling caused by thermal radiation feedback.” Each arriving truck company thereafter has specific tasks and responsibilities. But what happens to those who have just escaped the building?
There is no government-run social safety net to support their recovery after the fire; however there are a few organizations that can help: Fire Family Foundation, Give Forward, Crisis Intervention Service and Red Cross.

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