Twelve-year-old Evelyn Berber stands inside the burnt out shell of what was once her home on Sycamore Avenue on Saturday afternoon. The fire in her home, and two others nearby, are under investigation as possible arson. Nobody was hurt in the fires.
"What a night," said Merced City Fire Chief Steve Raney, shaking his head as workers cleaned up around him Saturday afternoon.
Fire crews could barely keep up as they struggled to contain one fire after another early Saturday morning. The calls kept coming in, four in total between the hours of 2 and 4:30 a.m. The fires occurred close to one another and are under investigation for arson. "The arson dogs just laid right down," said Chief Raney. "That's what we train them to do when they smell chemicals." Witnesses saw three young men, possibly teenagers, fleeing the scene. Evidence has been sent to a lab for further analysis.
No one was injured at any of the four fires. One pet rabbit was taken to a local veterinarian hospital where it is recovering.
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The Calderon family, whose house on Sycamore Avenue near Olive was burned to nothing more than a charred shell, was awakened at 3:11 a.m. when an object was thrown through the window of the master bedroom. Matias Calderon ran from the bedroom to wake up his two eldest children, Hector, 18, and Evelyn Berber, 12, and his father-in-law, Francisco Torres. As he rushed them out the door, he realized his wife Maricela and 2-year-old daughter Camilla were still in the house.
He turned to go back, but the fire was enveloping the house so quickly he could not reenter. He watched in terror for a few moments, unable to do anything. Inside the house Maricela opened the bedroom door and "saw flames coming towards me. At that point I knew enough to slam the door." She was able to climb out the bedroom window after passing Camilla to her husband.
"All you think about is getting out. We all ran out of the house in our underwear" said Matias. "We stood out there for about 45 minutes watching our house burn in our underwear until we realized it and some neighbors brought us some clothes to put on."
Just before the blaze started, a neighbor awakened by sirens responding to the fire nearby on Olive, came out and reported seeing a young man. When she asked him what had happened, she said he responded, "I don't know but I gotta go!" and ran toward two other young men running from different directions. The three fled the scene together. Immediately afterward, she noticed the Calderon's house was also on fire.
As fire engines raced from fire to fire, police sirens added to the chaos as they pursued the suspects.
In addition to the object thrown through their window, Evelyn Berber also said gasoline was poured on and around their front door, although the fire department has yet to confirm that.
The Calderons showed resilience Saturday afternoon as they carried out what was left of their belongings before their house was completely boarded up. Some clothing, a few toys, a few family photos, Hector's laptop and soccer uniform were among what little was left. The home was the result of hard work for Matias who runs a produce stand at local flea markets with his son Hector and father-in-law Francisco. "He works so much- from 4am to 9pm every day", said his sister Mirella, "They all worked so hard for this house." Hector and his grandfather Francisco packed their vehicle at 4 a.m, with the fire in their home barely contained, and headed to the Merced Flea Market, just as they do every Saturday morning. "I think we're all in shock", said Matias Saturday afternoon, "We could have died. It hasn't hit us yet but when it does, it's going to be really hard."
The Calderon family will be living with Matias' sister nearby while their house is being rebuilt.