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Accidents, fires keep emergency responders busy
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A fatal accident and a windswept grass fire that happened almost simultaneously on Hwy. 99 were just the beginning in a chain of events on Thursday that sent emergency responders on a flurry of calls in the Keyes area.

"Everything fell apart all at once," said California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Tom Killian.

A series of fires were reported in a perimeter that stretched to Taylor Road from the north, south to the Monte Vista Crossings shopping center, west of the railroad tracks, and east of Pitman High School. Wide swathes of scorched earth and singed trees were visible all along Highway 99 in Turlock. In total, the fires burned approximately 90 acres in the city and in the unincorporated areas to the north, according to the Turlock Police Department.

At about 2 p.m. on Thursday CHP received several calls of a serious accident on northbound 99, near the Keyes Road exit, involving nine people in a 2002 Chevy van.

According to witnesses of the crash, the van's driver, Jeanette Lewis, 34, of Oakland, was traveling in the fast lane at a speed somewhere between 75 to 95 mph.

A vehicle in the middle lane made a sudden lane change in front of the van, forcing Lewis to abruptly apply the brakes, Killian said. Lewis lost control of the van and it spun out, crashing into a guardrail. The van came to a rest in the middle lane, Killian said.

It was originally reported that the other vehicle involved was an armored truck, but now the CHP says that is unconfirmed and still under investigation.

Three people were ejected from the van, causing fatal injuries to two people. A 25-year-old woman died at the scene and a 52-year-old man was transported by Medi-Flight to Memorial Medical Center. He died two hours later, Killian said. Neither of the victims' names have been released pending family notification. It is believed all the people in the van were from the Bay Area and were working for a retail inventory service company.

The third person ejected was a 47-year-old woman. She suffered serious injuries and was transported to Memorial Medical Center. Her condition is not known.

The other six people in the van all had minor to major injuries and were taken to Memorial, Doctors Medical Center, Emanuel Medical Center, and Oak Valley Hospital, Killian said.

It is unknown if the three people ejected from the van were wearing seat belts. The crash is still under investigation and charges could be forthcoming against Lewis, Killian said.

While emergency crews were on scene at the accident, they noticed a grass fire fanning up about a mile south on Highway 99. It's not believed the two incidents are related.

"While both the vehicle collision and the vegetation fire are still under active investigation, preliminary investigation indicates that the vegetation fire was not a result of the vehicle accident," said TPD Sgt. Steven Williams.

The fire progressed southbound on 99 very rapidly. The gusty winds threw sparks onto both sides of the freeway and was a major factor for the spreading flames. The wind speed was averaging 17 to 22 mph, with some gusts reached 30 mph, according to the TPD.

Fire swept down the embankment behind the businesses in the Monte Vista Crossing shopping center and through an open field near Lowe's. On the other side of the freeway, fire spread through the fields adjacent to Taylor Road. Flames licked at the back wall of Wood's Furniture store on Taylor Road and charred the grapevines behind the store.

"The fire came up all the way to the back windows," said Dave Woods, co-owner of the furniture store. "The fire crews did a great job of pushing it around and saving the store."

Smoke from the fires seeped into the Taylor store and forcing them to close the location over the weekend, according to co-owner Randy Woods.

A fire on Golden State Boulevard began to encroach upon Suburban Propane at 4625 North Golden State Boulevard. As a precaution, the police department evacuated more than 100 people from several hotel and retail establishments, including the propane store, Best Western Orchard Inn on Taylor Road, and El Rosal and American Ag, both on Monte Vista Avenue.

The fire continued its march southbound and left 20 unoccupied mobile homes in Taylor Court in ruins, according to the TPD. The fire also burned five to 10 abandoned buildings and storage sheds throughout the area, Williams said.

The fatal accident and the fires forced a four-mile stretch of Hwy. 99, between Keyes Road and Main Street, to close that created a traffic nightmare for drivers on the freeway. Traffic backed up to Modesto and Merced during the four-hour closure of 99. As drivers were diverted onto frontage roads and side streets, traffic jams started to pop up all over the city. Traffic was backed up on Geer Road, Sante Fe Avenue, Golden State Boulevard, Monte Vista A

Several roads in Turlock were closed to allow for unrestricted access for emergency responders, Williams said.

All the roads and the highway were reopened by 7 p.m.

As firefighters from 12 different agencies responded to the fires in and around Turlock, police and ambulance crews were kept busy responding to a series of medical calls and minor to moderate accidents.

There were no injuries reported as a direct result of the fires.

Elsewhere on Thursday, more than 100 acres in Knights Ferry were burned from spreading grass fires. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, over 3,100 acres have been scorched in a fast-moving wildfire. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the region on Friday and pushed for a state-wide increase in homeowners' insurance fees that could fund an additional $100 million for fire protection.