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Vacant buildings fire risk, city says

Fire breaks out in a vacant building, perhaps a rundown house that has been empty for months, maybe years. No big loss, right?

Think again, firefighters say.

Such blazes endanger neighboring property and people, who often try to put out the fire. And they can be deadly to the firefighters who have to put out the flames, whether anyone lives there or not.

Thursday, a fire gutted a vacant west Modesto house and threatened to spread to nearby homes. In the span of a week in late January, three vacant buildings in Modesto were burned. One of those buildings near downtown Modesto was burned twice within several hours, fire officials said.

In all of these cases, investigators believe someone trespassed into the buildings and somehow started the fires.

"It seems like it's been unusually busy with vacant building fires," Modesto Fire Battalion Chief Sean Slamon said. "What that is related to, I don't know."

It might be gang members sneaking into a vacant home to vandalize the property, or it could be homeless people seeking shelter from the cold.

"These kind of fires pose a unique risk," Slamon said. "Since the building is vacant, the structure is most likely poorly maintained, which could cause a rapid structure collapse."

That's what happened during a fire that gutted a vacant south Modesto house at 615 Inyo Ave. on Jan. 26.

Firefighters were told the house had been vacant for months, but they still have to go inside the fully engulfed house and search for possible victims.

"We will risk a lot to save a life, but we will not risk a lot to save a building," Slamon said.

The fire on Inyo Avenue caught Arnulfo Cardenas, 62, and his family by surprise. They were at their house watching TV when a neighbor banged on their front door to tell him the house next-door was burning.

"We didn't have time to think," Cardenas said in Spanish. "We just waited outside on the street like all the other neighbors."

The flames were so intense that firefighters had to cut a hole in the wooden fence that separates Cardenas' house and the burning home to gain access to the fire.

Cardenas said he knew the home had been vacant for a few months.

Inside the burning house, firefighters spotted signs that the roof was about to collapse. They had to evacuate before they could complete their search.

After the roof caved in and most of the fire was extinguished, firefighters completed their search. They didn't find anyone — this time. But Slamon said there was somebody staying inside the house just before the fire started.

"It's a shame we have such a high homeless population," Slamon said. "In the cold winter months, they sneak into these vacant homes to seek refuge."

He said some of the damage squatters do to vacant homes or buildings to create makeshift living quarters also produces hazards for firefighters.

"Sometimes they'll cut holes in the floor to use as their bathroom," Slamon said. "We'll step right into the holes when we get inside to put out a fire. We usually find used hypodermic needles and broken glass."

Keep an eye on neighborhood

Slamon said residents, too, need to be wary of vacant buildings in their neighborhood.

"The best thing to do is contact the police and not try to take matters into your own hands," Slamon said. "You have to watch your neighborhood."

In the case of the house on Tuolumne Boulevard in west Modesto, the windows were boarded up, but neighbors said homeless people, teenagers and gang members broke into the house anyway.

"They were peeling back the plywood to get in," Slamon said. "But they were clever and did it in a way that nobody else could tell someone was inside."

A fire erupted in the garage and spread to the rest of the house by the time firefighters arrived early Thursday morning.

Cesar Ruiz, 20, was asleep next door when he heard neighbors screaming about the flames and the smoke.

The fire did not spread to his small house, but it came pretty close. Charred pieces of a wooden fence separate the two properties.

"It was producing a lot of sparks," Ruiz said in Spanish. "I thought my house was going to burn."

Ruiz said he saw all kinds of people sneak into the vacant house in the past four months. He said he saw homeless people, gang members and even students on their way home from nearby Modesto High School.

"They used to climb in with their backpacks," Ruiz said of the students. "Some of the neighbors said other people would go into the house to use drugs."

Ruiz didn't call police. Because he couldn't see what the people were doing inside, he said he opted to mind his own business.

Ruiz didn't realize then the trespassing would lead to a fire that threatened his family and home.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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