Firefighters Tuesday afternoon fought a large fire at a Schellville wooden pallet factory that forced neighborhood evacuations, blew up a propane tank and drew almost 100 firefighters from Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.
The three‑alarm fire on Fremont Drive was at the Sonoma Pacific Co., the same pallet business that burned in a massive fire in 2013 and suffered a smaller fire in 2007.
The blaze became the first for which emergency personnel used a new alert procedure, developed after the October wildfires, to send a message to smartphones in a select geographic area. Early reports are that the message, similar to Amber Alerts for child abductions, worked as intended in alerting residents of a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius of the fire.
“It was able to be isolated to the impact area,” said James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas said when he learned of the fire, his first thought was, “Again? Oh, geez, here we go.”
He said he arrived to see a plume of black smoke and “a ball of fire” about 100 feet tall.
The 12:30 p.m. fire burned about 10 percent of the operation, Mulas said. The cause remains under investigation and damage to the business was estimated at about $200,000.
The fire was full contained by 5 p.m., said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, who helped supervise the fire response.
Just after 1 p.m. the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation for a half‑mile around the property at 1180 Fremont Drive due to the threat of explosions and fire. About 500 residents were evacuated, Mulas said.
Cynthia Owings, an architect who has lived in a rented home on the nearby RV storage lot for about four years, said she was working at the small farmhouse when the blaze broke out. Her roommate, Maurice Horn, first spotted the fire and told her to evacuate.
She grabbed her computer and a few belongings and headed to the nearby fire station.
“We moved in right after the fire in 2013,” Owings said. “I never dreamed another fire would happen. I feel blessed to be alive.”
The evacuation order was lifted just before 3 p.m. but several nearby roads remained closed, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Robert Mortensen, facilities manager for Sonoma Pacific Co., said about 40 employees evacuated the site.
Soon after getting word of the fire, Mortensen heard “little pops” and then the propane tank blew, he said. The large tank went airborne and landed on Fremont Street.
No injuries were reported from the explosion or fire, Cal Fire Capt. Will Powers said.
About 90 firefighters responded from three counties along with 28 engines, two air tankers ,and at least one helicopter and bulldozer.
The fire damaged about seven recreation vehicles on a nearby property, Mulas said, with two that may have been hit by remnants of the exploded propane tank. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from reaching another 58 RVs, he said.
The fire appeared to have started toward the back of the property. Huge mounds of ash were left of what apparently had been stacks of pallets, mulch and debris, and some commercial structures. Some vehicles also burned, including what appeared to be a cargo container and trailer.