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Forty inmates evacuated after someone starts fire at main county jail

Inmates at the Merced County Main Jail set two trash cans on fire Saturday night, smoking up the facility but not causing any major damage or injury.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said the jail will be on administrative lockdown for at least 30 days and investigation is under way to find out who started the fire in the 30-gallon plastic trash cans about 10:49 p.m.

Pazin said if the perpetrator can be found, charges will be lodged against him. It's unknown if the prisoners smuggled in matches or a lighter. The fire originated in Areas 1 and 2 of Cellblock 3, which houses felony prisoners.

"They think they are being cute or funny," Pazin said. "It's still a dangerous situation for prisoners and correctional officers. The concern is the thick smoke; those characters don't understand the dangers of smoke inhalation."

Division Chief Mike McLaughlin of the Merced City Fire Department said a dozen firefighters in three engines responded to the fire. The blaze had been extinguished by correctional officers before fire crews arrived and firefighters ventilated the smoke from the building.

When they got on the scene, McLaughlin said, firefighters saw light smoke coming from the rear of the jail. Forty inmates had to be temporarily relocated while the smoke was cleared from the jail.

Fumes from burning plastic can be toxic and produce cyanide, Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten said.

The administrative lockdown will mean no visitations, loss of commissary privileges and a disciplinary diet. Five prisoners are located in the area where the fire broke out, but it's unknown who's responsible, Pazin said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger

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