June 10, 2014

Rash of blazes challenges Modesto firefighters

A series of blazes had firefighters rushing from one to the next Monday, Modesto’s hottest day of the year so far.

A series of blazes had firefighters rushing from one to the next Monday, Modesto’s hottest day of the year so far.

Firefighters with Modesto Regional Fire Authority and other agencies responded to four structure fires within a seven-hour span, according to Acting Operations Chief Alan Ernst. One person was arrested on an arson charge; that man suffered the only injury recorded in any of the incidents.

“Fighting the fires was made even more dangerous and challenging with afternoon temperatures exceeding 100 degrees,” Ernst said in a news release. The temperature in Modesto on Monday topped out at 104 degrees, according to the Modesto Irrigation District.

The first fire was reported at 5 p.m. at Shiva’s Motel on South Ninth Street in Modesto. Ceres firefighters took the original call at the motel, which has been the site of three fires this spring.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control in an hour and spent several more hours mopping up at the now-uninhabitable motel. Investigators had not determined the cause of the latest fire at the motel.

At 10:53 p.m., firefighters were called to an AM/PM convenience store on Fifth Street in west Modesto. A man, later identified as Miguel Angel Lopez, poured gasoline in front of the store and set it afire, according to authorities.

Ernst said the flames scorched the concrete outside the store but did not spread to the business itself or any property.

Customers who were inside the store had to run through flames to get out, he said. Firefighters put out the blaze quickly.

A fire investigator reviewed surveillance footage from the store to get the suspect’s license plate number, said Modesto police Sgt. Robert Stewart. The investigator, with the assistance of Modesto police, went to the suspect’s home on California Avenue in west Modesto.

Lopez, 45, consented to a search of his home, where investigators found clothes that matched those worn by the suspect in the surveillance video. Lopez confessed to the crime, Stewart said. According to Ernst, Lopez suffered minor burns to his extremities.

At 11:06 p.m., firefighters received a report of a fire at a commercial building in the 200 block of Seventh Street. When they arrived, heavy smoke was coming from the building. Bystanders reported that someone remained inside; firefighters searched but didn’t find anyone.

Firefighters controlled the blaze quickly, Ernst said. Damage was estimated at $50,000. Investigators had not determined the cause of the fire.

At 11:48 p.m., firefighters received a report of a vegetation fire on Broadway Avenue in south Modesto. When crews arrived, they found a vacant church with smoke coming from the entryway.

It took firefighters 30 minutes to bring the blaze under control. The flames and smoke destroyed the vacant church. Damage was estimated at $100,000; the cause remains under investigation.

“Throughout the afternoon and evening MRFA resources were taxed with multiple incidents and coverage in the city was limited due to the draw down of resources,” Ernst said. “The heat played a key role in firefighter fatigue and number of resources needed.”

Ernst said there was nothing to indicate the fires were related. He noted that MRFA, which responds to 260 fires in a typical year, had 60 last month alone.

“Our concern right now is the heat and our resources,” he said, noting that Modesto is considering closing a fire station next month. “To fight one of these fires is taxing. Three is exhausting.”

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy contributed to this report.

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