PITTSBURG -- A two-alarm house fire early Sunday morning, and a lack of early warning because of uninstalled smoke detectors, caused the death of three women, Contra Costa fire officials said.
Around 12:30 a.m., crews responded to multiple reports of a fire at a single-story home in the 200 block of Dimaggio Avenue, Fire Marshal Lewis Broschard said.
Crews were able to knock down the fire -- which appears to have started in the front room of the home -- by 12:55 a.m. After hearing that there may have been occupants in the home, firefighters searched the residence and were able to pull them out, but too late, given the amount of exposure to smoke and toxic fumes.
The three who died were all occupants of the home and all women older than 18, Broschard said. Identities have not been released, as the Contra Costa Coroner's Office is notifying next of kin.
Broschard points out that crews found three smoke detectors in the home, but they were uninstalled and sitting on a countertop. They were not functioning and didn't have batteries, he said.
"The real tragedy is that this could have been averted," Broschard said. "They would have had advanced notification that there was smoke and could get out. Three smoke alarms are $15, and were probably the difference between life and death."
The fire could have been burning for a while in the early 1950s-era home, given the small number of passers-by on the suburban street, limited streetlights and time of morning, officials said.
One woman was found in a bedroom while the other two were found toward the front of the house. It appeared that all three were trying to exit, Broschard said.
The presumption is that they were sleeping, he said.
Several neighbors on Dimaggio Avenue said they had few encounters with the women, saying they were renters who moved in a few months ago, and were often at work.
A neighboring home had some exterior damage from the blaze, but the resident of that home, Mary Lou Oliver, said "that's all material" considering the gravity of the situation.
Oliver said she "feels fortunate" because she was asleep when the fire started and she woke to neighbors pounding on her door to wake her up. She grabbed her Chihuahua, Niki, and a couple things, and quickly left.
After racing out of her home, Oliver said she saw the fire burning the fence between the two houses and a "big ball of fire" in the front of her neighbor's home.
Fire investigators remained at the scene Sunday morning looking for the cause of the fire, and trying to determine a cost estimate of the damage.
The last Contra Costa fire to result in multiple deaths was at a Pleasant Hill apartment complex in July 2012, when a couple in their 30s died. That case also was in the early-morning hours, and the victims did not have working smoke detectors.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.