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House suffers 2 fires in 1 day

Ominous radio reports of people trapped inside a burning home Tuesday night gave way to better news of a transient who escaped unhurt as flames singed the vacant South Merced structure.

No one was injured in the 7:33 p.m. fire at 339 R St. but the home, reportedly vacant for months, sustained $30,000 damage in preliminary estimates by Battalion Chief Tom McCall of the Merced City Fire Department.

Firefighters had responded about

6 a.m. Tuesday to a separate small fire in a back bedroom of the house.

Merced Police Department Sgt. Bob Chapman said the fire could have been arson, as there were two places where the fire broke out and a strange burn pattern in one corner. Detective David Alcaraz, an arson investigator, was summoned to investigate further.

Chapman said it initially appeared like someone was cooking inside the home when the fire broke out. He said neighbors reported transients going in and out of the house for weeks.

A man inside the house, Sergio Ruelas, 43, of Le Grand, was arrested by Officer Ronald Luker on a warrant, possession of narcotics paraphernalia, and assault/battery charges after he reportedly hit a good Samaritan twice over the back of his head with a five-gallon plastic water bucket.

The neighbor, Salvador Garcia, 42, of Merced, was trying to keep Ruelas from going back inside the home. Ruelas had run around the side of the house to get water to extinguish the fire.

Chapman said it's relatively common for transients to break into vacant properties and get arrested by officers for trespassing. Transient-caused fires, however, aren't the norm, he said.

Next-door neighbor Fred Anaya said the home has been vacant for many months.

"The homeless go in and out all the time, all day long. I don't know who owns the home," Anaya said.

McCall said fire damaged the roof, attic and some of the walls inside the home. He said the fire was brought under control at 7:48 p.m. Twelve firefighters in three trucks responded to the blaze, and observed fire and smoke showing when they arrived.

Chapman said responding officers questioned passers-by who confirmed no one was inside the home. Ruelas was found by Luker in a nearby alleyway. Ruelas told officers he had been sleeping in a rear bedroom when the fire broke out and three other people had been staying inside the home.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or