MARTINEZ -- A home known locally as the "Christmas House" for its lavish annual December display caught fire early Tuesday morning, the second time it has burned in six months.
The single-alarm blaze was reported at 4:02 a.m. at the two-story vacant home in the 900 block of Walnut Street and was under control by 4:38 a.m., Contra Costa fire Capt. Robert Marshall said.
Firefighters, however, did not squelch a smaller flare-up from a damaged gas pipe until four hours later, when PG&E crews were able to dig up the sidewalk and pinch off a gas line, Marshall said.
"Once gas started to leak out of that pipe, from our perspective, we needed to continue to let it burn at the end," until the source could be cut off, Marshall said. Otherwise, gas could have continued seeping onto the scene and potentially ignited by a stray ember, causing a much greater danger.
No injuries were reported.
PG&E crews arrived on the scene about 4:45 a.m. and set to work digging through the concrete, shutting off the gas at 8:23 a.m., PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said.
The electrical and gas service to the home had been cut off Monday at the request of the property owner, but the fire had somehow burned its way into the gas line and damaged the pipe, Sarkissian said.
The home had been unoccupied since Jan. 17, when a fire believed to have originated with a wood-pellet stove in the living room forced the family to move
Neighbors had made several recent calls reporting trespassers, and investigators suspect the building was being looted by people hoping to pull out copper and other materials before the building came down, Marshall said.
The owners, retired couple Sharon and Joseph Brock, have been struggling with one challenge after another since they fled their home of many years, and found themselves exasperated Tuesday morning.
"We've been trying to get our lives back together since the first fire," Joseph Brock said. "People have been trying to help us and everything, but we didn't have nothing left. We didn't even have a toothbrush."
Neighbors had dubbed the home the "Christmas House" because the family decorated it every winter, drawing visitors and onlookers from across Northern California and, Brock said, from around the world.
The building had been scheduled for demolition Tuesday.
An adjacent home also caught fire, sustaining damage to the exterior and parts of the attic, Marshall said. A trailer on the site was also damaged, and a mid-size excavator parked there to aid in the planned demolition was rendered unusable. It will have to be dismantled or towed out, Marshall said.
The building was so badly burned, and it remained so hot Tuesday afternoon, that it was unsafe to go on the property to investigate firsthand. The cause will probably remain undetermined unless witnesses come forward to help identify suspects, Marshall said.
Anyone with information about the case can call the investigations hotline at 925-941-3322. Calls may be made anonymously.
Contact Sean Maher at 925-943-8013. Follow him on Twitter.com/oneseanmaher.