Large Debris Fire Burns Barns, Buildings in California

July 09--A fast-moving fire burned several old cars, barns and outbuildings Tuesday behind a house just north of Atwater. The fire raced through dozens of dry wood pallets, shooting flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the sky.

A towering column of black smoke could be seen from Merced, more than 10 miles away.

Flames whipped up just before noon in a large debris pile behind 9258 Westside Blvd., between Livingston and Atwater. A small portion of the home's roof sustained minor damage, but firefighters were able to save the home, authorities said.

Dozens of homes in the Atwater Migrant Center were threatened, but no others were damaged, according to Battalion Chief Glenda Leonard of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Merced County.

No injuries were reported. As a precautionary measure, one firefighter was taken to an area hospital because of overexertion sustained while battling the blaze, Leonard said.

The fire is not considered suspicious.

Residents at the Westside Boulevard home said sparks from grinding a rusted water pump screw likely sparked the blaze.

Luis Arveal, who lives at the home, said his family was trying to fix a water pump when the fire broke out. Arveal, 24, and several others were seen hustling tires, weightlifting equipment and other items away from hot spots.

The pallets, Arveal said, were left over from a family business that shut down about 10 years ago.

"We used to make them to sell; we never thought anything like this would happen," Arveal said. "Thank God nobody was hurt. And thank God for all these friends who helped us save things today. Without them I don't know what would have happened."

Flames spread to dozens of pallets, old cars, miscellaneous debris and a large eucalyptus tree behind the home before the fire was stopped. Fire officials estimated the blaze caused about $5,000 in damage.

More than 20 firefighters from Merced County, Atwater and Livingston responded to the scene.

"At first, it was a really big fire, huge, and it spread ... when the firetruck ran out of water," said Diego Ramirez, 18, who also lives at the home.

Leonard confirmed firefighters ran out of water twice while battling 20- and 30-foot flames for nearly two hours. Firefighters began pulling water from a nearby canal owned by the Merced Irrigation District.

"We're extremely grateful to MID, because without that water we could've really been in a bad way," Leonard said.

She said Tuesday's fire was a good reminder for residents about the dangerous fire conditions throughout California this summer. "We're in a drought and it's very dry. All it took was one little spark today and it all went up in smoke," Leonard said.

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or rparsons@mercedsunstar.com.

Copyright 2014 - Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)

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