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'Teamwork makes the dream work': Neighbors work together to save their homes from burning down

A wind-whipped fire on Southcross threatened nearby houses Thursday night, until residents jumped in.

SAN ANTONIO — The fire that consumed two south-San Antonio structures Thursday night was so big and so hot that it took only four minutes from the time of dispatch for firefighters to call for more manpower along the 2500 block of West Southcross.

A radio transmission from the first arriving company warned of dangerous conditions: "This is a large, large fire! We do have a secondary structure that is beginning to catch."

Video from passersby indicates the fire started in and obliterated a massive abandoned two-story home. According to tax records, the home was 3,445 square feet in size and dated back to 1930. The well-aged, wood-framed building bloomed into a red-hot inferno quickly, catching a nearby cinderblock transmission repair shop on fire as well.

As firefighters scrambled to keep wind-driven embers from taking out an adjacent neighborhood of single-family homes, the auto repair shop was also lost as its roof collapsed and cars and chemicals were in danger of cooking off from the heat.  

With winds whipping hot glowing embers around their heads and homes, neighbors who live along the 100 block of Hollenbeck to the north of the fire started banging on windows and doors to warn others of the approaching firestorm.

Johnny Silva said his neighbors are traveling out of state and had asked him to look out for their house, which adjoins the fire scene.  

"I said I would watch the house, so that was my job and I did my job," Silva said. 

He said with the roar of flames rising above the treetops, he used a truck as a ladder to scale a tall wooden fence to gain access to the backyard of the home, in order to rescue the family pets.

With the pets safe and embers everywhere, Silva said he grabbed a waterhose to spray the yard to save the house, fence and cars.

"All the neighbors were doing the same thing, trying to save houses with garden hoses or whatever they had," Silva said.

Silva's neighbor, Belinda Oviedo, had high praise for his actions, running from house to house tamping down hotspots as yards started to catch fire.

"Johnny was able to jump fences and think quick and react even though smoke was coming through the area," Oviedo said. "Everybody helped out and I'm really glad. Everybody was yelling. It was like a job with everyone doing what had to be done."

"We have a lot of people here who have a hard time walking, they have a hard time getting out of their home. They were the main people that we were trying to save," Oviedo added.  

Pets were rescued too, as Oviedo said they lifted one 60-pound dog over a fence that was locked in a yard and in harm's way.

Oviedo said she's thinking about being better prepared, as backyard garden hoses were the only thing that kept the situation from blooming out of control.

"People were coming out with jugs of water and refilling them with hoses to put out embers," she said.

Oviedo said that as one neighbor was running to warn others of the danger, they realized the back of his house, more than one block away from the fire, was also ablaze.

"All of a sudden we saw a big light in his backyard and just one ember landed on his house and suddenly we just saw a rage of fire within a matter of seconds," Oviedo said. 

Laughing and grateful for the support of loving neighbors, Oviedo said "Teamwork makes the dream work!"  Oviedo said they have all shared phone numbers on the block, never expecting they would need them for a time like this.

Natalia Herrera was grateful for the help. She said she had already settled in for the night when a neighbor knocked on her bedroom window and warned her of the approaching danger.

Herrera said she grabbed her hose and started dousing embers that were catching her grass on fire.

"There was a fire right under the air conditioner, like a ball of fire, so I put it out and I just wet my roof,  and I got all wet!" Herrera exclaimed, adding it was a very scary thing.

"We are all good neighbors here and we look after each other," Herrera said.

Neighbors watching out for one another is one element of a San Antonio Fire Department initiative to keep everyone safe. The department's website offers tips and an outline of its SCAN program, which features four key pillars:

  • S - Smoke Detectors
  • C - Clear Path of Escape
  • A - An Action Plan For Family Members
  • N - Neighbors Helping Neighbors 

"With it being as dry as it is there are a few things folks can do to make their homes more fire safe," added SAFD spokesman Joe Arrington, saying the most important thing to remember when trying to fight a fire is that property can be replaced, but people can't.

Arrington said they always advise people to consider personal safety the most important thing during a fire.

The National Fire Protection Association has published a simple brochure that's available on the website.  It includes the "Home Ignition Zone Checklist."

The list offers simple steps from roof to foundation to make a home safer from embers and radiant heat like neighbors experienced during the Southcross fire.

As a hot Friday wound to a close, members of the family that lost their transmission shop were hard at work salvaging anything that could be saved and clearing the site of dangerous debris.

Christine Perez said her family had been in the shop for decades. Fighting back tears at the loss, Perez said she is grateful that family members and friends wasted no time in working towards recovery.  

Covered in grime and fighting the excessive heat, they labored throughout the long day, picking through and hauling off scrap metal as fast as they could load a line of trailers.

With regard to the cause of the fire, Arrington said, "Due to the extensive damage of the fire origin building it will likely go as an undetermined cause, but as of now it is officially under investigation."

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