A Merced couple was arrested Thursday for allegedly torching their downtown business inside a 91-year-old building on Main Street, according to investigators.
No one was injured in the Dec. 18, 2016, blaze in the 600 block of West Main Street inside UC Oriental Market, which investigators said was set by 50-year-old Zang Her and 45-year-old Mai Moua. The couple owned the business but not the building, according to Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II.
"Firefighters have described the fire as one of the most significant in recent Merced history," he said. "The nature of the blaze provided heightened dangers to the firefighters involved in containing it."
The 7,500-square-foot building and its contents were “deemed a total loss" of "conservatively" $1.8 million, including insurance payouts and the staffing time of investigators, according to Chief Michael Wilkinson of Merced City Fire Department.
"It was a major event in downtown Merced," he said.
Crews from all five of Merced's fire stations responded to the fire, as well as engines from Calfire Merced County and Turlock Fire Department, Wilkinson said. Thirteen Merced police officers were also on scene.
A forensic accountant from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a Ceres dog trained to find accelerants also aided the investigation, officials said.
The building that's stood since 1927 has since been cleared away, and officials said the structure next to it, the former Reinero's, is expected to be demolished as well.
Because of the age of the building, firefighters were not able to get to the roof to ventilate the fire, which would be the normal procedure, Wilkinson said. Crews were concerned the fire "had the potential" to spread to other buildings along the entire downtown block, he said.
The rubble from the building remained downtown for several months. Investigators contend they did not hold up the cleanup of the building, rather that it was held up by insurance companies.
Investigators believe the fire started on the mezzanine of the two-story tall building, Morse said, adding surveillance photos showed the couple at the shop before the fire. He declined to describe the footage any further.
"There was evidence of a financial motive," he said. "Sometimes in an arson it isn't just for an insurance payout. It's also oftentimes to get out from under the ongoing bills associated with running the business, especially if the business isn't prospering or is failing."
The couple was arrested around 7 a.m. Thursday on suspicion of arson and fraud, officials said. They are each held in lieu of $75,000 bail, according to jail records.
Arson is considered a strike under California law, and the couple could face up to seven years in state prison if convicted, Morse said.
The couple purchased the business inside the building just four months before the fire, according to a member of the family who owns the building.
There is no formal plan for the spot where the building stood, according to Frank Quintero, Merced economic development director.