Firefighters found a man’s charred body Tuesday afternoon on the floor of an empty house that caught fire on East 21st Street in Merced.
Merced police Sgt. Don King said it was too early to know how the man died or the cause of the fire at 1670 E. 21 St. “The body was found in the room where the fire started,” King said. He confirmed that the body was burned and said it remains unknown whether the man died in the fire or before it started.
King said the Merced County Coroner’s Office would likely be called in to help identify the body and perform an autopsy.
Jeff Horta, acting battalion chief at the Merced City Fire Department, said 13 firefighters responded at 3:34 p.m. to a 911 call and found a “small, smoldering fire” that appeared to have started in a bedroom on the northwest corner of the home. Horta said firefighters extinguished the small, smoky fire in less than 10 minutes.
“It’s really not obvious at all what happened in there at this point,” Horta said of the fire’s cause.
A damage estimate had not been determined Tuesday afternoon.
Merced police detectives and Fire Department arson investigators are conducting a joint investigation into the man’s death and the fire’s cause. Horta was careful to note that arson investigators are called to the scene of any fire involving a death and said it does not necessarily mean the fire was intentionally set.
Neighbor Greg Fieber, 36, was at home across the street when he saw the smoke and called 911. “People come in and out of that place a lot. It’s like flop house or drug house or squatter’s house all the time,” he said.
The peach-colored house was foreclosed upon several years ago and has been boarded up, neighbors said, but many people have been seen sneaking into the graffiti-covered home through the backyard. Fieber said the home was purchased about five months ago by a younger couple and put up for sale.
The home is listed on trulia.com, where its assesed value is given as $56,279. According to the website, the 984-square-foot home has two bedrooms and a bathroom and was built in 1948.
Donald Hadley, 25, lives next door to the home and said “homeless people and kids break in there all the time.”
“It’s been completely stripped, all the appliances were stolen, the dishwasher, everything; all the wires and metal,” he explained. “There was a little nest inside there where someone was living.”
Hadley said people coming and going from the house also stripped everything of value from its backyard and have also stolen things from his own backyard in the process.
“It’s been abandoned for at least three years, maybe longer,” he said.