Fire raced through an apartment complex early Friday, causing more than $1 million in damage and leaving more than 60 people without homes.
Glenda Leonard, the Battalion 16 fire chief, told the Sun-Star the blaze was reported about 6:50 a.m. Winds gusting in the area led flames to spread quickly throughout the single-story apartment complex.
No injuries were reported, although Leonard said one young girl was treated for possible smoke inhalation.
The manager of the Schoolhouse Apartments said 17 of the 18 units had been occupied.
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The collection of attached apartments “had a common attic, which means there was no barrier in the attic to separate each apartment,” Leonard said by phone. “The wind was blowing and it basically took that roof off.”
Leonard said the building was a total loss.
Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn said more than 60 people were displaced and were receiving assistance from Merced County and the Red Cross. He put damage estimates at more than $1 million.
The apartment complex is across the street from Winton’s Sybil N. Crookham Elementary School on Walnut Avenue.
Bernadette Martinez, 37, had taken the day off from her job at Foster Farms to assist with a student field trip to Monterey Bay. She was taking two of her children to Crookham when she saw heavy smoke and flames shooting out of several windows and parts of the roof.
She rushed to the burning apartments and banged on doors to alert residents to the danger, including many who did not speak English. Pounding on doors as windows exploded around her, Martinez said she saw many partially dressed people flee from the burning apartments with only the clothes they were wearing.
“There was nothing but black smoke everywhere,” Martinez said. “I’m still shaking.”
Sheila Standley was asleep in her apartment when she heard someone banging on her front door.
“It was so fast. Smoke just took over everything,” Standley said. “I didn’t even get my shoes on.”
Standley moved into the apartment complex less than a month ago.
Michael Castaneda’s mother, Selma Salinas, already was at work when the fire broke out. “My mom lost everything,” he said. “She lost her cat, too. That’s hurting her more than anything.”
The school was placed on lockdown as traffic on the street was rerouted during the start of the school day. Classes, however, were allowed to continue at the school, which has about 440 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, according to Mayra Carrillo, accounting payroll specialist with the Winton School District.
Students were moved to a part of the campus away from the fire. Carillo said parents concerned about having their children exposed to the smoke were allowed to pick up their students from school.
Speaking from her office less than a block from the fire, Carrillo said Friday morning she could see the smoke. “It smells like burning. The apartment complex is totally damaged,” she said.
About 30 firefighters and nine engines responded from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Merced County and Atwater. PG&E shut off power and gas to the complex, as well as to an apartment building behind it, Leonard said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
The Merced County Human Services Agency was working with the Red Cross to help the displaced residents and families.
“Some are more fortunate and have family in the area they can stay with,” said Scott Pettygrove, director of Merced County HSA. “Some are just kind of stunned, still trying to figure out what the next step is and we’re here to assist them with that.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482