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Vacant theater building burns
The building that once served as the concession stand, projection room and restroom facilities of the now defunct Ceres Drive-In burned late Monday evening in what appeared to be an arson fire.

The fire broke out in the two-story building at 1651 E. Whitmore Avenue, Ceres, at approximately 8:07 p.m. Authorities termed the fire as suspicious since the building had no electricity and the fire appeared to have started at opposite sides. Vandals had previously stripped copper wiring from the structure and homeless people reportedly were camping out on the property.

Firefighters were on the scene for three hours and 40 minutes fighting the raging blaze. Four engines and 11 personnel from Ceres Fire Department were summoned, and aided by three Modesto firefighters and a Modesto engine and three engines from Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Department. Westport Fire Protection District assisted by providing station coverage.

Because the fire spread to an attic, firefighting was difficult and water was directed high overhead by a Ceres ladder truck.

"Due to the amount of fire involvement and the structure being vacant for some time it was not safe to enter," said Batallion Chief Randy Wheeler. "We used a defensive fire attack."

Wheeler happened to be driving on Highway 99 when he spotted smoke coming from the area and called it in. The building was heavily involved on both the east and west ends when the first fire engine company arrived within three minutes of the call, he said. Wheeler said nobody was seen in the area.

Flames shooting into the night sky were seen by Highway 99 motorists as black smoke and ash rained down in the area.

The two-screen Ceres Drive-In started in 1947 and was one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the Valley in recent years. The theater, which had a capacity of 600 vehicles, closed in 2007 but the grounds were used as a weekend flea market until December 2008. The flea market was a casualty of the success of the El Rematito flea market on Crows Landidng Road.

"There's going to be some people who are bothered by this fire but since it was vacant it kind of changes the perspective of it," said Wheeler. He said Ceres police have taken numerous theft and vandalism reports and chased out vagrants and trespassers.

"All the gates were open and it's not secure," said Wheeler.

The facility is on the market as an industrial building site and listed at $2.5 million.