Several Merced families were displaced early Tuesday morning after a fire ripped through two apartment buildings in the 1800 block of Willowbrook Drive.
Firefighters said it's a miracle none of the nearly 40 people affected by the fire was injured.
The fire was reported shortly after midnight. Both buildings were fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. The cause of the fire is unknown and remains under investigation, said Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten.
The buildings contained a total of 16 units, all of them occupied.
The fire took two hours to contain. Firefighters remained at the scene throughout the morning and early afternoon, cleaning up piles of charred debris. Mitten estimated damage at $2.5 million. The damage was so extensive, Mitten said both buildings will probably have to be torn down.
The buildings weren't equipped with ceiling sprinklers, Mitten said.
Clifford Dale and his wife were among the families who escaped the fire. Dale said his dog Diva alerted him to the flames.
Dale said he knew something was wrong after his dog wouldn't stop barking and was running back and forth in the apartment. Dale looked outside and saw a tree next to his apartment engulfed in flames. "I said, 'Joyce, this is serious. We've got to get up out of here!'"
Dale, Joyce and their dog ran from the apartment and escaped to safety.
Meanwhile, Tim DuPree and other residents of the apartment complex saw the flames and began going door-to-door, trying to get everyone out of both buildings. "It was pretty much a community effort to make sure everyone got out," said DuPree.
Loretta Pond also saw the flames, saying she was extremely worried for those inside both buildings. "I've been here for 13 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said Pond, shocked.
As for Dale, he's thankful for the efforts of firefighters, saying they did a good job. Dale was especially appreciative after a firefighter went into his apartment, retrieving his waterlogged wallet.
Although Dale probably won't be able to retrieve all of his property, he was optimistic. "Those are just things. They can be replaced," Dale said, adding he and his wife are just glad to be alive.
Around 50 firefighters responded to the scene, along with seven fire engines and one ladder truck.
The Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce is accepting donations for victims of the fire. The Breakfast Lions Club said it was soliciting donations for the chamber's efforts.
The chamber's office at 360 E. Yosemite Ave., Suite 100 (between Millennium Sports Club and Patients First Medical Center in Merced), will serve as a drop-off location for clothes, blankets and nonperishable food items. The chamber will also accept donations Saturday during the "Cook-off at the Courthouse" barbecue event, scheduled between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., at Courthouse Park. For information, the chamber can be contacted at (209) 384-7092. To make a monetary donation to the victims, the American Red Cross can be contacted at (209) 383-2150.
The American Red Cross Central Valley Chapter also said that its volunteers have responded to the fire. The Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers were called out at 2 a.m. to help 16 families whose homes were totally destroyed by the fire. The volunteers helped each family to be sure they had a safe place to sleep, nutritious meals, clothing and emotional support as they start to rebuild their lives, the chapter said in a news release.
The Central Valley Chapter of the Red Cross responded to 446 fires last year in the area, helping more than 1,600 people, the news release said.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.