Two days after his family's home was left a burned-out shell, Hector Berber washed cars with some 20 friends in the parking lot of his high school.
His friends and schoolmates hastily threw together the car wash, a fundraiser for Berber's family, after they learned Berber's home burned along with two others in what could have been a streak of arson.
The fires at 815 E. Olive Ave., Hector's home at 3074 Sycamore Ave. and 400 E. Alexander Ave. all occurred between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Saturday and within blocks of each other. An arson dog from Fresno hit on each of the homes, indicating accelerants may have been used, and officials are treating the fires as suspicious.
Merced City Fire Chief Ken Mitten, however, said the department is waiting on the results of lab tests to determine if the fires are truly related. The tests will show if any or the same accelerants were used at each of the homes. He was unsure when the department would have the results.
The home at 815 Olive Ave. was vacant at the time of the fire and it appears several fires were set throughout the home, Merced City Fire Division Chief Steve Raney said. The fire on Sycamore appears to have started on the porch or near the front door of the home. While the third fire started on the outside of the Alexander Avenue home, scorching a shutter, it was extinguished by a neighbor before it could do much damage, Raney said.
Berber, 18, a senior at Merced High School and soccer player, shakes his head at the thought someone set the fires on purpose.
"I hope they catch the guys and we can get them before somebody gets hurt. I don't want anyone to have happen to them, what happened to us," he said.
Berber said since the Saturday fire he has pondered if he should keep his clothes on when he sleeps in case he has to bolt out of his home again, and he gets scared if he smells a strange scent.
Most of all, he said he is humbled by the support his friends have shown him. He stepped right in with them Monday, washing cars from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Larry Lopez, Merced High School's activities director, helped the teens organize the event. Behind a sign that asked "What would you do if you lost everything?" the washers took donations for Berber's family. Lopez said he didn't have an exact total of the day's activities but all of it would go to the family. Some visitors had given from $5 up to $40 to the family.
In the wake of the fires, Division Chief Raney urged residents to be alert and aware of any suspicious activity they see in their neighborhoods and said don't hesitate to call police.
"I wouldn't think there would be any reason to be alarmed, but there is a possibility it could happen again," he said.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209)385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.