The blaze, which started in the laundry room of an unoccupied house in the 1400 block of Taylor Road, destroyed both that structure and an adjoining residence and damaged a third, said Chief Hugh Henderson of the East Contra Costa Fire District.
Crews on 10 engines and four water tenders from both that agency and Contra Costa County Fire District were summoned at 2:26 a.m. to fight the fire, which kept them busy for more than five hours. The blaze was under control at 7:41 a.m.
Two people lived in each of the two-story homes on either side of the fire's origin.
One person suffered smoke-related injuries but was treated at the scene, Henderson said. Nobody else was injured, he said.
By the time the firefightersarrived, the rental home was fully engulfed, he said.
"There's nothing we were going to do to save the first house from the beginning," Henderson said.
Two engines stationed on the levee drafted water from the nearby San Joaquin-Sacramento River because the island does not have any working fire hydrants. Henderson said the situation did not have a major effect on firefighters' ability to battle the blaze.
"Water was never an issue in this incident," he said."These communities have private water companies that serve them, and they lack a water main," he said. "So by pumping in water we make our own."
What did prove to be a problem were power lines that had come down between one of the two totaled houses and the engines,
"Water and electricity don't mix," Henderson said, noting that there have been cases of firefighters electrocuted by downed power lines.
Crews had to wait about 90 minutes for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employees to arrive and immobilize the arcing lines before they could move in, Henderson said.
And, even after the obstruction was removed, firefighters had to continue battling the blaze from the outside because by then, the structure was so badly damaged that it had become unstable, Henderson said.
Yet another factor that played into the effectiveness of the response is the closure of the island's fire station last July because of budget cuts. The first three-man crew came from the next closest station in Knightsen nearly seven miles away, a drive that took them 16 minutes. By contrast, the shuttered Bethel Island station is just over two miles from where Wednesday's fire started.
"So yeah," Henderson said, "there's an impact there on how quickly we were able to fight this."
There's no evidence of arson in the home where the trouble all started, said ConFire Fire Investigator Vic Massenkoff, noting that the tenants who recently vacated the home had ongoing problems with the electrical circuit in the laundry room.
As firefighters lingered near the soggy mess of charred timbers where the house next door once stood, Rich Carlson and his wife contemplated their good fortune.
Although the intense heat had melted blinds and windows and burned a large black scar into the siding, the home they had built themselves five years ago was still intact.
"I can't put it into words how lucky I feel," said Carlson, who was awakened by strangers pounding on the door and staved off the flames with their help.
But the fire was gaining the upper hand and the pine tree right next to their balcony had started burning by the time help arrived.
"We held it off just long enough -- it was seconds (away from disaster)," Carlson said.