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Tossed cigarette suspected in major Petaluma fire

Fire investigators suspect a cigarette flicked out the window of a passing vehicle started a fire that ignited the grass and eucalyptus trees along Highway 101 Tuesday before tearing through a Petaluma neighborhood, burning 14 homes and causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage.

Four homes were destroyed by flames. Many families who lived in 10 additional houses damaged by the fire were at least temporarily displaced by the acrid stench of smoke in the neighborhood of modest single-story homes along Stuart Drive whose backyards abut the highway.

One day after the fire, families and neighbors Wednesday gathered to assess the damage and pick through the rubble for mementos in their tucked-away east Petaluma neighborhood. Many people blamed the now-charred stand of eucalyptus trees between their backyards and the highway for how quickly the fire spread to the neighborhood.

Two people suffered minor injuries, and one cat died in the blaze.

“It was almost a matter of time before this happened,” said Bill Folla, 55, overcome with emotion as he stood on the driveway of his uninhabitable red-tagged house where he’s lived for 30 years.

Folla, who has lived all his life in Stuart Drive homes, said he’s called Caltrans numerous times to request the trees be trimmed and dead branches removed.

Several doors down, Diane Luis helped her in-laws, Fernando and Alice Luis, into her car for a medical appointment. The elder Luis’ home was damaged by smoke and water but can be repaired, she said. Diane Luis shook her head and voiced her frustration that a decadesold proposal to build a soundwall behind the neighborhood never came to fruition.

“Those trees aren’t supposed to be here,” Diane Luis said. “The fire wouldn’t have hit our home with a wall. This shouldn’t have happened.”

The fire started just after 3 p.m. in dry grass near the northbound Highway 101 offramp at East Washington Street. The blaze quickly took hold in dry grass and a thick layer of leaf and bark litter and then raced up into the roadside eucalyptus grove. The wind sent fire brands from the trees into the neighborhood, ripping through backyards and roofs in the 300 block of Stuart Drive.

The oily trees are great fuel for fires, Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Schach said.

“When the eucalyptus caught on fire, they produced a significant amount of heat and significant number of fire brands that carried on the wind and into the neighborhood,” Schach said. “The trees were definitely a contributing factor to the intensity and rate of fire spread.”

Many of the trees are slated to be cut down when a highway widening project gets underway, according to Caltrans spokeswoman Shannon Brinias. The project doesn’t yet have funding and is still in the design phase, she said.

Brinias said Caltrans has received a number of inquiries about the trees after the fire. Before then, the agency had not received a request for tree maintenance in that area through its online reporting system since 2010, she said. Brinias didn’t know whether people had called to ask the agency to assess the trees.

“We are currently reviewing a plan of attack regarding the burned trees,” Brinias said.

But not all trees were Caltrans responsibility, with numerous growing beyond the state agency’s right-of-way and on private property.

Eucalyptus trees provide good sound barriers because they are laden with branches and leaves, and many communities want to keep them, she said. They are otherwise considered a nuisance because of the amount of leaf litter, she said. Caltrans landscape designers opt to plant other types of trees, depending on the area’s micro-climate.

“We don’t have a budget to be removing trees unless there’s a sizable danger, a significant danger,” Brinias said. “Right now our maintenance budget is extremely limited. We’re doing the best we can with the budget we have. With an upcoming construction project, that’s the ideal time.”

Petaluma Fire Marshal Cary Fergus said the fire’s origin has been pinpointed to an area just before the highway’s northbound exit for Washington Street.

Fergus said he found cigarettes in the area where the fire began, on the shoulder just before a lane opened up to the offramp, and said that was the most likely cause of the fire.

“It appears to be an accidental fire caused, most likely, as a result of discarded smoking materials,” Fergus said. “There are burn patterns that extend up into that area.”

Schach said vehicle fires are also commonly caused when hot pieces of catalytic converters or mufflers fall away or by dragging chains, which can cause sparks.

When firefighters arrived, the fire had already spread through 14 backyards and some roofs.

“The fire was blowing between the houses from the backyard, coming through the fences,” Schach said.

Stuart Drive resident Jack Skilling, 30, said his wife, Bridget Skilling, was in the backyard with their 8-month-old son Hunter, playing in a kiddie pool, when she heard crackling noises and saw embers flying her way.

“She grabbed the baby, the dog and helped get an elderly neighbor in the car,” said Skilling, who received a frantic phone call as his wife fled the neighborhood.

Their house was damaged and habitable, but they were staying with family to keep their baby away from the stink of smoke.

About 20 houses in the neighborhood were evacuated as at least ?80 firefighters and a Cal Fire helicopter attacked the blaze from the ground and sky, taking almost an hour to bring it under control.

The fire forced the closure of both northbound lanes of the freeway north of Lakeville Highway for almost an hour, backing up rush-hour traffic all the way into Marin County near Novato. Southbound traffic, too, was slowed as drivers gawked at the flames and thick plume of black smoke filling the sky.

Staff Writer Christi Warren ?contributed to this report.

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