Preparing for the worst, a North Merced man cleared brush from between his house and that of his neighbor Sunday afternoon after the house next door caught fire earlier that morning.
The fire at 1143 El Portal Drive was under control by 5:33 a.m. -- but the man was taking no chances. He was just getting ready in case it happened again.
That's because the house has caught fire four times in the past few months.
The problem of fires at the El Portal residence was brought to Monday's Merced City Council meeting.
Neighbor Rich Slatten spoke on behalf of his neighborhood and detailed problems that residents have had with a person who's been occupying the property. He asked the council to take action.
The latest blaze left two firefighters and the occupant injured, said Chief Ken Mitten of the Merced Fire Department. Both firefighters were treated and released from the hospital Sunday, he said. One suffered burns to his leg, and another suffered burns to his forehead and ears after part of the building partially collapsed on them.
One occupant, who a neighbor said had started the fire in the backyard to keep warm, suffered burns to her leg.
She was later found down the block, Mitten said.
The fire was labeled "suspicious" Sunday, but Tuesday, Mitten said he's "pretty well set on the fact that she (the occupant) probably set the fires."
The department is looking into whether the fire was an accident or started on purpose, he said.
Either way, it's illegal to have an open fire like that in Merced, Mitten added.
The house has been the center of controversy many times before.
There have been a "number of calls and issues" relating to the house and the woman who stays there, said Mike Conway, public information officer for Merced. Code enforcement has visited the house many times. "We're looking at it as a public nuisance and trying to address the issue," he said.
The owner of the house is Carol Baker, Conway said.
The city plans to start resolving the situation by posting notices, but can't do too much until Baker is out of the hospital, he said.
The house was boarded up at one point and was supposed to be vacated, Conway said. "I can understand the neighbors' concerns, we share those," he said. "We want a safe resolution."
Mayor Bill Spriggs said he also understands the concerns coming from people living in the area, and met with staff Tuesday morning to try to remedy the issue.
"Obviously, she has some significant mental issues," he said referring to the woman who allegedly started the fire.
City staff is working with the district attorney and mental health personnel to see what it would take to have the woman institutionalized, Spriggs said.
Until action is taken, neighbors who are already concerned for their safety said they're staying cautious.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.