Fire victims say San Jose, Caltrans failed to heed warnings to clear debris
Alexis Cook and her stepdad Steve Cribbs walk through what used to be their living room. Photo by Luke Johnson.

It was a ticking time bomb.

Brush covered the ground, people flicked cigarettes out of cars and the sun glared down on land by Interstate 280 in San Jose.

Alexis Cook, 26, who lived with her daughter and stepfather near Interstate 280 and CEFCU Stadium, knew someone had to clean up the dried needles dropping from several pine trees directly behind her home.

Even though residents sent numerous emails demanding something be done, neither Caltrans nor the city took action. A fire burned down Cook’s home Monday.

“Caltrans property was already lit up,” Cook said. “Basically the tree ignited and then it brushed on to the other trees, and then the wind was against us and it was flying towards the house rather than away from the house. And so because of that, it was all on top of the roof.”

Cook said she barely escaped the house with her 3-year-old.

“It was a difference between 5 minutes. If we would had still been in the shower, getting dressed for the evening, we wouldn’t have made it out,” she said.

Alexis Cook observes the remains of her kitchen after it was destroyed by a brush fire in San Jose. Photo by Luke Johnson.

The fire was the result of what residents say was consistent negligence by Caltrans and the city to clean up brush from the area.

In turn, the brush scattered off the freeway provided fresh fuel for a blaze, and residents said homeless residents from nearby encampments often started fires near the houses bordering Interstate 280.

The cause has not yet been determined but the fire started in the vegetation near the freeway, according to Erica Ray, a spokesperson for the San Jose Fire Department.

A spokesperson from Caltrans declined comment because the fire is still under investigation.

Jeff Scott, a spokesman for the San Jose Housing Department, said Caltrans is responsible for clearing out encampments and brush along the freeway.

“They address encampment concerns on their property,” he said.

But residents say local leaders need to take responsibility for protecting residents who live near state roads.

“The city is partly involved here,” Cook’s neighbor John Wilhelmsson said. “The city always uses the excuse ‘Oh, it’s Caltrans land,’ but obviously they’re right next to each other and it runs right through the city, and people from the city are being affected by the negligence of Caltrans.”

The owners of a house a few blocks from the fire on Monday, lamented over the city and state ping ponging responsibility to one another.

“The city, every time we complain, they say we can’t do anything about it because it’s a state problem,” said Ashvin Joshi, who owns a property with his wife, Pat, off Ninth Street near Interstate 280. “The state always tells us they don’t have jurisdiction over all these homeless encampments. So, they’re both kind of pointing the finger at each other.”

Joshi and Wilhelmsson said they have been in contact with Caltrans and the city trying to get the brush cleared.

The demands became more urgent as three fires struck the area from June to July, Joshi said.

“One of these days, we may not be so lucky. Our fire department may not be so powerful to put it out,” he said.

Wilhelmsson shared emails he sent to Caltrans and the city over the span of two years asking them to clear the brush and encampments.

His house sustained minor damages in the blaze, but he said it could have been far worse.

“I’m amazed that I’m sitting in my house tonight,” Wilhelmsson said. “If my house would have caught (fire), then we could have had the whole block go.”

With the pine needles as tinder, residents and property owners said any ember can spark something destructive. Oftentimes, people will melt down copper in the brush or drivers will flick cigarettes out their cars, according to Cook.

Cook said this has sparked several spot fires near her home, which has put her on constant alert.

“We can’t even enjoy Fourth of July, either, as a family. We don’t go see fireworks,” Cook said. “We actually prep the day before Fourth of July with making sure that all the pine needles (are clear) because of all the fireworks going off in the sky and potentially falling on to our house, and just igniting it.”

Cook and Wilhelmsson said homelessness contributes to the problem. Cutting off the fuel source would reduce the risk of disaster.

“The big problem is you have this big amalgamation of homeless people, mentally disturbed people starting fires and you have Caltrans not doing anything at all,” Wilhelmsson said.

Alexis Cook and her stepfather Steve Cribbs pose in front of the remnants of their home, which burned down in a fire. Photo by Luke Johnson.

Cook said the loss of her home has been irreplaceable. She suffered second-degree burns on her toes as she was trying to hose down her house.

The destruction split up the family. Cook is staying with a friend, her daughter is two hours away with her dad and her stepfather is staying with his boss.

“We can’t potentially be together in one spot because we have nowhere to really go at this point and we’re just trying to figure out what our next steps are and what we’re going to be doing,” she said.

Alexis Cook recovers a photograph that was under a pile of debris. Photo by Luke Johnson.

Cook said her family lost important memories, including a painting and grandfather clock from her stepdad’s great grandfather.

“We’re trying to get through the debris and stuff to see what’s salvageable. It’s like being in a vortex where it’s just a whole other world,” Cook said. “I don’t think we’ve processed it fully. My stepdad is having moments where he’s just breaking down and bawling.”

A GoFundMe page has been created for the family.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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