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Trestle fire darkens sky
Fire closes Main Street
Deep black, heavy smoke signaled to almost anyone outside within 20 miles of Porterville that there was a serious fire somewhere in the city Thursday afternoon.
The smoke was coming from the fully engulfed old Southern Pacific Railroad trestle just west of the Main Street bridge.
Somehow the nearly 125-year-old trestle caught on fire about 4 p.m. and was consumed by flames before firefighters could even begin to put water on it.
The fire, fueled by the old creosote-soaked wood, put a huge column of deep black smoke high into the air. Estimates are the smoke could be seen for miles around. The smoke drew hundreds of onlookers who were kept back by police and firefighters. South Main Street was closed between Date and Vandalia avenues.
Firefighters were able to knock down the flames in about 20 minutes, but Interim Fire Chief Glenn Irish said he expected Main Street to be closed for hours as they continued to put water on the trestle.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said assessing the fire from the Main Street bridge. He said they would have to really soak the old wood to ensure the fire does not rekindle.
“It will be a pretty long process,” said Irish.
The trestle was built in 1888 when the Southern Pacific Railroad was constructed through Porterville, states historian Ina Stiner in her book of early history of Porterville. Historian Jeff Edwards agreed, saying the trestle off of Plano Street was built in 1917.
“The arrival (of the train) was a great event in the history of the town,” noted Stiner of that date in 1888.
Today, about all that is left of that railroad through town is the raised bed that once held the ties and tracks, and the trestle. It is not known who owns the trestle. Irish did not think the city owned it. It is not used for a trail.
Responding firefighters had to cut the gates to the Tri-K Truss Co. yard at 411 S. Main St. and stream water over the cyclone fence onto the trestle. Another engine came in off of E Street. The fire began on the north end of the bridge.
“The only access to get a strong flow of water is right here through the truss yard,” explained Irish. The closest hydrant was on the east side of Main Street.
Irish did not think the trestle had ever burned before.
Porterville Police spokesperson Sgt. Dominic Barteau said the city’s 9-1-1 system just “lit up” with calls.
Irish said the city treated it as if it was a large structure fire, calling out all engines, personnel and reserves. Tulare County Fire Department also sent an engine. In all, he said about 20 to 25 people were on the fire.
Irish was concerned with the health of his firefighters, noting how “volatile” the deep black smoke was. Those in the line of the smoke were told to use oxygen masks.
Edgar Garcia, a student at Porterville College, was one of those who called 9-1-1.
“It looked like it had just started,” he said when he saw as he was leaving PC. “Smoke wasn’t that high yet, but it was dark black.”
Irish said they had no idea how the fire began.