A three-alarm fire at the Sonoma Pacific pallet factory on Fremont Drive on June 5, drove hundreds from their homes and businesses in a double deja vu experience reminiscent of both last October’s wildfire inferno, and a 2013 fire at the same facility that did a million dollars in damage.
No cause had been determined for the June 5 fire, but Schellville Fire Department Chief Ray Mulas estimated the damage at about $200,000, and said as many as 500 people may have been evacuated.
The 12:30 p.m. fire caused closure of Highway 121/Fremont Drive from Eighth Street East to Broadway, shut down Broadway at Watmaugh Road, and caused traffic gridlock on Arnold Drive, Watmaugh, Broadway, Stage Gulch Road and feeder streets.
At the height of the fire, a large propane tank of heavy-gauge aluminum or steel and at least three-feet in diameter, exploded and flew end-over-end through the air, skimming the roofs of a few parked RVs before landing in the eastbound lane of Highway 121, about a quarter mile from the fire. It had enough velocity and mass to have instantly killed any person in its path, and could have crushed the side of a passing car if law enforcement officers had not closed the road.
Fire fighters were able to protect the adjacent McCaffrey RV Storage site, where another 58 recreational vehicles were parked unharmed.
About 90 fire-fighting personnel responded to the blaze with 28 engines from three counties, along with one helicopter, some air tankers and a bulldozer that managed to push back piles of burning pallets.
The 2013 fire at the same location also featured an exploding propane tank, flames more than 100 feet in the air and piles of burning pallets. But that fire covered nearly 40 acres and was ignited by sparks from a dangling chain on a passing tow truck.