Officials: Illegal fire pit caused West Modesto blaze that displaced 17

sghag@modbee.comMay 17, 2014 

— An illegal outdoor open pit fire is being blamed for a blaze that destroyed three town houses and damaged four and involved every fire station in Modesto, authorities said Saturday.

“We’re looking around $1 million in damage, but we don’t have all the estimates,” said Alan Ernst, acting operations chief for the Modesto Regional Fire Authority.

One person was transported to an area hospital with minor injuries, but authorities did not have any more information on the injured individual. No firefighters were injured.

The fire displaced 17 people, according to Debbie Calcote with the Stanislaus office of the American Red Cross Capital Region Chapter. The Red Cross provided victims with lodging. Of the 17, seven were children, with the youngest about 7 or 8, she said.

Uninhabitable units at Emerald Villa Homes were boarded up Saturday morning.

Authorities are following up on suspect descriptions, said Ernst, as the investigation continues.

Crews from 22 fire agencies fought high winds and high temperatures Friday night to control the vegetation blaze that quickly grew south of Kansas Avenue and west of Highway 99. The call came in around 6:30 p.m., said Ernst, with containment at 1 a.m.

“Modesto city has 12 fire stations,” said Ernst. “Every unit from Modesto Regional Fire and several county agencies assisted.”

For 1½ to two hours, he said, “there wasn’t a fire engine left in the city of Modesto to answer other calls. He said San Joaquin County and Ripon Consolidated Fire District assisted with the fire and Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District was among those providing station coverage for Modesto.

Modesto Regional Fire Authority interim Chief Sean Slamon said Friday the incident began as a vegetation fire on the raised berm of earth at Emerald and Kansas avenues, but with winds around 17 mph and the temperature near or above 90, it moved quickly.

Ernst said it’s going to be a long and dangerous fire season because of the Valley winds, low humidity and no rain.

“These are conditions we normally see in July that we’re faced with,” he said.

The town houses that burned are closely clustered east of Emerald Avenue. To the south is Loletta Avenue; to the north, no street separates them from the grassy berm.

Bee staff writer Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at (209) 578-2340 or sghag@modbee.com.

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