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Fire burns families out of apartment buildings
child saved
Jason Avila holds his daughter, 11-month-old Roxanne Avila, after dropping her to safety through a window of their burning apartment unit. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

A raging fire destroyed two apartment buildings within the Vineyard Apartments complex in Ceres Monday afternoon, displacing residents of 12 units and taking the lives of two pets.

The fire broke out at 3:44 p.m. and spread quickly between one eight-unit building of the Richland Avenue complex south of Hatch Road and the neighboring four-unit building to the west. Departments from Turlock City, Hughson, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated responded to assist Ceres Fire in battling the fire. A total of 38 personnel and nine engines were involved in the firefight.

Residents who were at home when the fire broke out in Building "K" made it out safely. At least one Ceres police officer, Norberto Castro, sustained a deep cut to his hand as he went door to door alerting residents to get out, said Ceres Police Lt. Rick Collins.

Ceres Fire Deputy Chief Bryan Nicholes said the fire appeared to have started in an unauthorized storage area created in the breezeway underneath an outdoor staircase at the northern side of the center section of Building K. He said the fire started up the exterior wall on the west side of the center building of the apartment cluster.

Ashley Craighead watched the fire being fought, upset that her dogs perished in the fire. They were being kept in a kennel inside the second-story unit she was renting with family.

Her brother, Jason Avila and his wife, Alicia Avila, barely had enough time to get their daughter out of apartment #121 with the advancing flames. They had to drop 11-month-old Roxanne outside through a window to the arms of Clint Loveland, a resident in the building to the south.

"I was playing a video game and she (Alicia) went out to the kitchen and she heard ‘Fire, fire' and so she opened the door," said resident Jason Avila. "And I just came out into the hallway because I heard it too and the flames just came into the house. So we ran back to the bedroom and kicked open the screen and there were people down there already and I just dropped the baby off to them."

The couple said they felt lucky that there were people on the ground to catch the baby "otherwise I would have had to jump with her," said Jason.

The Avilas jumped from the window too - a drop of about 10 feet - with no time to even put their shoes on or grab personal belongings like cell phones. Alicia suffered cuts to her foot and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

During the fire, one female resident was distraught because she had to flee the fire without the cremated remains of her late husband. However, firefighter Jeff Serpa was able to access the unit by an outdoor ladder to retrieve the box of ashes.

The blaze was quickly knocked down by firefighters who rotated between duties and cooling themselves in the shade away from the 100-degree temperature that choked the scene. Ceres Fire Captain Mike Lillie said fighting the fight presented a challenge when four Ceres firefighters made their way up the outdoor staircase and were on the second floor balcony when it collapsed. The men jumped back onto the metal-framed staircase anchored to the building to prevent from falling. The attack then resorted to use of metal ladders to reach the second-story windows and spray water inside. Aerial nozzles directed water onto the roofs from ladder trucks.

Lillie said that firefighters finished up by 9 p.m. but had to return to knock down a hot spot at 12:30 a.m. yesterday.

Those who lost their home were offered a temporary emergency shelter set up by the Red Cross at the Ceres American Legion Memorial Building. However, all found places to stay with friends and relatives and nobody used the shelter, said Acting Police Chief Brent Smith.

Lillie said he believed that the first floors could be remodeled while the second floor would require new construction.