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Chief rebukes public who interfered in structure fires
Four homes were damaged - one heavily - when a backyard shed burst into flames Tuesday evening, May 4, in the Dale and Eloise avenues neighborhood.

It was the public spectacle, which interfered with fire and police efforts, that is being talked about a week later.

Sgt. Pat Crane said a large crowd of onlookers gathered and had to be removed to get out of the way of fire suppression efforts.

"Several roads needed to be closed to traffic and most of the on duty were needed for crowd control," said Crane.

Police Chief Art deWerk said the onlookers presented a "serious problem."

"It was almost shameful how little regard some of the onlookers were actively interfering by not getting out of the way and not getting out of the street," said deWerk. "They got in the way of firefighters. It was seemed for some of the people present they were highly entertained and by standing in the way they were substantially making it difficult for police and firefighters. It was just a serous problem and if we had been in a rescue mode that activity could have spelled peril."

The incident, which started at 7:09 p.m., affected four homes and drew 24 firefighters from Ceres, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated fire departments. Nobody was injured.

Fire officials are investigating the cause of the fire, which broke out in the backyard of 2608 Dale Avenue. Embers quickly spread to the wood shake roof of 2200 Eloise Avenue resulting in a significant loss.

Officer Jeremy Caron was on patrol and spotted thick black smoke in the air on Dale Avenue as calls began coming into the 911 dispatch center about a structure fire. Caron and Officer Carlos Quiroz began evacuating homes before the fire expanded, "allowing firefighters to battle the fires instead of clearing houses," said Crane.

Neighbors reported hearing explosions, possibly acetylene gas tanks stored in the shed. It's believed that the heat caused the tanks to explode or fail.

"The best we can tell, it was similar to an oxygen tank," said Battalion Chief Michael Lillie. "They have not told why they had them. One tank exploded and several other propane tanks had the release valve pop when they got hot, which is what they're supposed to do to keep from exploding, and sometimes that can sound like an explosion."

The eaves of a neighboring house on Dale were damaged but the damaged was limited by firefighters who arrived within four minutes. The two houses on Dale Avenue sustained exterior damage only, but the shed was a total loss. Two houses on Eloise were damaged; one being the heavily damaged home and another which had three windows broken out of the rear. Lillie said residents of three of the four homes were able to stay in their homes. The Eloise Avenue home will need to have a new ceiling and roof which will probably take six months for repairs.

The Dale/Eloise incident was the second fire of the shift. Lillie said a fire broke out at a mini storage facility on Kinser Road. The fire started in a motorhome that two persons were trying to get started. The engine backfired and started the fire in the motorhome engine compartment. The fire then spread to another car in the storage lot.

"We were able to keep the fire from spreading to the storage units that the motor home was parked against," said Lillie.

Wayne Bowden was unable to get out of the motorhome before suffering burns on the right side of his body. Arthur Sumner, 70, of Ceres, was more fortunate. Bowden was taken to Memorial Medical Center with second-degree burns over 10 percent of his body. The victim was then transferred to UC Davis burn center unit.

Police said that the fire also destroyed a classic 1941 Chevy belonging to Robert Gutierrez of Madera. The car was stored in a unit next to the RV.

Also on May 4, a driver lost control of a vehicle at Highway 99 and Hatch Road and hit a light pole, which then started a fire in the oleanders. The driver and passengers sustained minor injures.