Charred community a 'snapshot in time'

A playground has crumpled in upon itself like a deflated volleyball. A nearby park bench rests frozen in mid-melt, its metal frame draping downward and backwards as though it has taken up residence in a funhouse mirror.

Across the street, a swimming-pool sized cavity in the street is hemmed by a chain link fence; on it dangles a green sign: 1701. It is the address of the home that once resided in that space, one of the three dozen homes that have been reduced to grubby mounds of crumbling cement and rusting metal.

The new address signs that have been tacked up on each lot are the only suggestions that the neighborhood is destined to be filled with homes, and families, again.

On Friday, members of the media were allowed for the first time to walk through the streets of the neighborhood that was rubbed out when a Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas line erupted in a geyser of flames. An inferno ensued and in a few hours swallowed homes and the memories they held for hundreds.

The word “charred” came from reporters’ lips and pens as they toured the panorama of gray and black. Charred spine of a rosebush. Charred overturned bathtub. Charred stink that sticks to the back of the throat. Charred door of a pickup truck: Did the duct tape on it really survive the flames?</p>

Overseeing the destruction scene was Todd Thalhamer, a waste management engineer for state fire cleanup agency CalRecycle. He is operations manager for the cleanup, a job he also held in 2007, when the Angora fire raged through the mountains above Lake Tahoe and consumed more than 200 homes and again when the San Diego fires torched some 1,500 more later that year.

The post-fire scene in San Bruno is different from those, though, he said in morbid contemplation. Most wildfires that destroy neighborhoods at least afford residents some small notice, allowing them to perhaps gather a few things, search for their pets, jump in their cars and drive away.

Not so in San Bruno.

Front doors were left open. Cars were torched in their driveways or on the streets, because they were too hot to approach, or people did not have keys as they fled. Residents simply ran through the streets seeking an end to the awesome heat.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” he said. “You can tell people were just running for their lives.”

What the escapees left behind was rapidly devoured by the fire. Each house site was a testimony  to what did not succumb to flames: brick fireplaces; metal lawn furniture; carcasses of cars; the mesh under a landscaped front yard.

The unearthly scene was permeated by the rowdy clamor of large machines. On Thursday, muscled yellow arms of backhoes began gnawing through the piles of cement, bricks, and defeated water heaters.  White-suited and snouted masked strangers drenched the piles of debris with water to smother toxic dust.

Thalhamer expected that by the end of the weekend at least three lots would be scraped bare of their contents.  Within three weeks, all of the heaps of rubble that lurk behind the hopeful, green address signs should look more like blank slates, ready for their scarred survivors to begin envisioning something to replace them with.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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