Byron, California Fire Centered Downtown

This hamlet in a rural enclave between fast-encroaching suburbs has suffered another blow to its historic downtown strip with the destruction of three buildings in an early Saturday morning fire.

The fire gutted several businesses on Main Street operated by Danny Adona, but left the nearby Byron Museum largely intact. Adona, who residents said lives in the San Jose area, operated Adona Oil, an oil spill clean-up service, and sold motorcycle memorabilia. He recently put up a sign advertising a medical marijuana dispensary, residents said.

East Contra Costa Fire Battalion Chief Hugh Henderson said the fire appeared to be accidental. Strong winds apparently caused two power lines to come too close to one another, producing an arc that ignited a roof. Strong winds fanned the fire, which spread quickly through a common attic that the three buildings shared, Henderson said. About 50 firefighters from Byron, Discovery Bay, Brentwood, San Ramon Valley and the California Department of Forestry were on scene, and got the fire under control at 5:30 a.m.

Steve Gentile, who lives in the back of a Main Street antique store, said the wind picked up shortly after midnight Saturday.

Sometime later, Gentile said, "I heard something like someone popping popcorn, or fireworks." The second time he went out to check on the noises, he saw smoke and small flames at the rear of the building, and called 911.

Adona could not be reached Sunday.

No sign was visible amid the charred remains of the three buildings Sunday. Henderson confirmed there had been a medical marijuana sign on one of the buildings.

"Apparently they were applying for permits, but (Contra Costa County) sheriff's (officials) said they weren't operating."

Adona once managed the Byron Saloon on Main Street. In February 2002, sheriff's deputies arrested Adona on suspicion of felony vandalism after he allegedly slammed into the Byron Saloon and the Wild Idol Saloon with a backhoe. The saloon's owners filed suit against Adona in 2003.

Several residents and visitors said this town at the center of a rapidly disappearing farming region has changed of late.

"It used to be so peaceful and bucolic," said Monique Weil of Oakland, a member of a gliding club based at Byron airport. She wondered if the burning of a chunk of the remaining downtown would accelerate its transformation into suburbia.

A fire about six years ago destroyed the historic Odd Fellows Hall, believed to have been among the oldest in California. Other buildings have since been damaged or destroyed by fire.

Earlier this year, television cameras descended on Byron in response to talk of building an e-BART station. Byron is roughly at the center of a triangle formed by Brentwood, Tracy and Livermore.

"We're right in the middle of everything that's happening in East Contra Costa," said Bear Leighton, whose family has lived in Byron for several generations. "Most of the old-timers are selling out."

Leighton lives with his wife and children in one of several houses on a spread belonging to his mother and father. One day soon, he said, "you'll have the developers and Starbucks and the rest of the chains."

But, he said hopefully, "it'll be a while before it catches up to us."

Distributed by the Associated Press