‘The day the Berkeley firefighters did right by me’

Andrew Leonard, front right, barefoot, watches as Berkeley firefighters work to quell a fire at his home. Photo: Keilou

Andrew Leonard, who has lived in Berkeley for 25 years, is a staff writer at Salon. On June 21, he woke up in the night to find his home was on fire. He tells the story in a piece published today on Salon:

Midnight in Berkeley, Calif. I am standing barefoot in the middle of the street watching firefighters rush in and out of my home. My phone rings. It is my daughter, calling from a small town in Normandy, France.

“Dad,” she says. “What’s going on? I got an email from a neighbor saying our house is on fire?!”

Yes, I tell her. Our house is on fire. As I speak into the phone, I watch a chainsaw-wielding firefighter cut a hole in my roof. Two others are getting their oxygen tanks replaced.

“What happened?”

I try to shake off the shock and humiliation. I thought I had reached that point in my life when a late-night call from my children would mean they had their own disasters to report. But this catastrophe is all mine. My best guess, I tell my daughter, is that after her brother and I had grilled burgers earlier that evening, a charcoal ember had slipped through the decrepit ash-catcher underneath the grill and smoldered for hours in the wooden deck before exploding into flame.

No one was hurt, I tell her. After dinner, her brother had biked over to a friend’s house to play video games. I had gone to bed early, preparing myself for what I expected to be a very busy morning of Supreme-Court-striking-down-Obamacare news coverage the next day. But around 10:30 I’d woken up, alarmed by strange popping-and-crackling sounds.

Continue reading on Salon.

A personal thank you to the Berkeley Fire Department [12.28.11]

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  • berkopinionator

    Note: BBQ should not be used on a wooden deck. Put the BBQ on the grass, dirt, or concrete.

  • deirdre

    What a great essay.

  • The Sharkey

    Or switch to propane. I know it doesn’t taste the same, but it’s a lot less likely to start an accidental fire like this.

  • berkopinionator

    True, propane doesn’t drop chunks of hot charcoal.  Still it is prudent to keep both the charcoal and propane BBQ’s somewhat isolated from the house.  Less smoke and CO in the house, and reduced risk of fire and/or propane explosion.

    You don’t want leaking propane to accumulate under the deck or into the crawl space.

  • Elsloan

    Thanks to Andrew Leonard.  I read the essay with tears streaming my face, just as when I stood on the side walk in the freezing rain in the middle of the night some 15 years ago as my home in San Francisco burned. My girlfriend and our cat, our neighbor upstairs, and a neighboring family with both a elder and small children next door were all safe. There was nothing I could have done to stop that fire, but I was consumed with a sense of hopelessness and shame that I can still feel now. The best thing about that night was seeing the firefighters of Station 34 arrive just a few minutes after the call went out and quickly put it down. The did their job like great professionals, and treated us with respect and compassion. The SFFD did right by me.       

  • Good story, but this is really link bait to Salon.  Don’t know exactly what Berkeleyside gets out of the deal.  Weird new journalism of the millenium, I guess.  Maybe a Salon writer for free?

  • You are reading too much into this. Andrew Leonard pointed us to the story in Salon and we asked Salon if we could publish it with a link because we thought many of our readers would appreciate reading it. That’s all.

  • The Sharkey

    I think it’s OK for a local media outlet to be interested in a local story being published in an international media outlet.

    I remember hearing a lot of fire engines that night and wondering what the commotion was all about. It’s interesting to read an account from someone directly affected by the incident.

  • another BUSD parent

    Props to Mr. Leonard and the BFD. Im so sory for his loss, which motivated me to move the BBQ AWAY from the house. And to the BFD, whose “moments of boredom interspersed with moments of terror” (as a fireman defined his job to me a few days ago) as a way of life keep us all safe.

  • Guest

    I think the political insinuations of this article are, quite frankly, ludicrous.  Are we to infer that if we only paid our firefighters say $100,000 per year on avg., rather than $150,000, they would be less qualified, competent or inclined to put out fires as quickly as they could? 

    Should we also deduce that if we doubled the avg. pay of Berkeley firefighters to $300,000 per annum (like some were paid in now bankrupt Vallejo) that they would have saved even more of the author’s home and possessions?  Finally, what about the American tradition of the “volunteer fire dept.”?  Do those firemen not put out fires at all?

  • hardlyaguest

    Firefighting (actually putting fires out) is a very small part of what our fire department does. In 2011 those skills were required in less than 2% of incidents. While EMS responses accounted for 68%. 

    Is there really no more cost effective way of dealing with ‘slip and falls’ at Walgreen’s than to roll a 20 ton truck with $600k of annual compensation and benefits on it?



  • BerkeleyResident

    The reason? Liability.  If someone perceives that they received less aggressive use of resources than someone else, then the responding agency is assuming certain liability.  Thanks why you get as aggressive of a response to the slip and fall as you do the full cardiac arrest.  One 20 million lawsuit nullifies any perceived savings in sending limited resources to what is seen as a less acute call.  And because the severity of the call can’t be judged until the fire department actually arrives, they assume the worst every time.  Some slip and falls are the result of cardiac arrest. 
    As for the pay…. I think we are misinterpreting the article.  Mr. Leonard was only pointing out that in all of the political warfare about public service that dehumanizes the public employees to no more than pawns, he found himself in a situation in which one human (or a few) did right by him above and beyond what the citizens ask him to do.  As for the volunteer departments, who among us volunteers at fires? In rural areas where they go on one call every few days, maybe that works.  But when the City of Berkeley has over 12K calls for service each year (see city stats), volunteers just don’t cut it anymore. 

  • hardlyaguest

    Civic bankruptcy will be the mother of invention. Arriving in a 20 ton fire engine with a full crew to treat a cardiac arrest (or ‘slip and fall’) is an outrageous misuse of resources made to seem reasonable by obsolete practice. 

  • BerkeleyResident

    Please make sure to point that out when they show up to treat your family member.
    We all seem so quick to point out the ‘outrageous’ cost associated with caring for people that we don’t know.  However, a cardiac arrest in the hospital uses a minimum of 10 people.  I would assume that the three that show up on a fire engine don’t exactly stand around.  As for a slip and fall, I would assume that anyone who weighs more than 200 lbs or so would be fairly difficult to lift. 
    Do you have a suggestion for what to replace the current ‘obsolete practice’ with? Because I for one will back you up on the spot if it provides the same level of service at reduced cost.