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Sparks from Golden State Water work crew ignite Bernard Field Station

UPDATE 6:17 p.m.

A quick moving fire destroyed 17 acres of the Bernard Field Station in Claremont Wednesday afternoon after a Golden State Water crew sent sparks flying while using a metal saw on the north side of Foothill Boulevard near the Field Station, according to an eyewitness report.

The fire started about 3:30 p.m. on the north side of Foothill Boulevard between Dartmouth and Mills Avenue according to Los Angeles County Fire Captain David Stone.

“We knocked it down pretty quickly with our forward firefight and with air support form the helicopters and the Superscooper,” Captain Stone said. There were no evacuations by nearby residents due in part to the quick response from first responders.

The fire burned about 17 acres all inside the field station and investigators are inspecting the structures in the field station for damage, according to Captain Stone.

Claremont police shut down Foothill Boulevard in both directions from Mills to College avenues. Mills going north to Radcliffe was also closed.

At around 3:25 p.m., Claremont High School math teacher David Sawhill was riding his bike home on Foothill when he saw a work crew next to a Golden State Water Company truck using a saw that emitted sparks. The sparks ignited brush on the north side of Foothill near Harvey Mudd College and, although the workers tried to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher and shovels, the flames quickly got under the chain link fence and into the field station.

“The (workers) threw up their hands and gave up,” Mr. Sawhill said. “Then I called 9-1-1.”

Mr. Sawhill’s home was one of a half dozen that were briefly threatened by the flames. As the wind carried the fire from its starting point across the field station, thick smoke covered Mills Avenue and embers were falling on the roofs and yards of homes in the 1400 block of North Mills. Mr. Sawhill went home and immediately started to water down his home.

“Ashes were hitting my skin. It hurt—they were like little pieces of fire,” Mr. Sawhill said. He later admitted it was pretty cool being able to watch the whole thing from the point it started then with the airplanes dropping water and finally when it was just smoldering ash.

His neighbor, Tina Blair, was at home when the fire started. She was opening the house to get some air when she smelled smoke. Going to the front of the house, she saw the flames and quickly gathered her daughter and a few things and put them in the car. She told her daughter, who is a senior at CHS, to leave. Ms. Blair stayed behind to spray water on her home.

“I’ve been worried about that (field station) catching fire for years. Now it happened,” she said. “I love the field station.”

She also added that the fire fighters did a great job.

LA County Fire Station 101 was the first to respond. It was a highly coordinated effort between an estimated 115 firefighters, including fire and police from the county, and the cities of La Verne and Chino Valley.

Clean up is expected to continue into the night.

—Steven Felschundneff

 

UPDATE 5:05 p.m.: Claremont Chief of Police Paul Cooper informed the COURIER that the fire has been contained. Chief Cooper says the scene should be clear within an hour and pedestrian access reopened within 30 minutes. The cause of the fire is still being determined. 

Emergency response teams have taken to the Robert J. Bernard Field Station, where a fire erupted shortly around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Foothill between College Avenue and Mills is currently closed as firefighters work to put out the blaze. The brush fire spans about 3 acres from Mills, west to College and Foothill north to Radcliffe. Residents in those neighborhoods have not been evacuated, but police officers are warning residents to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. Residents who live off Mills and Foothill may be unable to access their homes. COURIER columnist Mellissa Martinez, who lives in a neighborhood off Foothill and Mills, is reporting that she has been restricted access to her house. 

The fire has not spread to the botanic garden, and fire crews are working to keep the fire contained. An estimated 115 firefighters, including those from Claremont and La Verne, are on scene along with several helicopters dropping water. 

Police are asking residents to keep the area clear for response teams. The COURIER will provide more information as soon as it is available.

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