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Fire leaves family homeless

Two 7-year-old boys are suspected of starting a fire early Wednesday afternoon in central Merced that destroyed the rear portion of a six-unit apartment complex and adjoining garage, damaged a nearby residence and displaced at least one family of four.

Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten estimated the 1:08 p.m. fire did between $425,000 and $450,000 damage to the dwellings near West 18th, West 19th and T streets. The stubborn fire, which festered in the upstairs attic of the apartment complex at 1306 W. 19th St., was not declared under control until about 2:30 p.m.

Gerrael Neely, his wife, Eboni Harris Neely, and his two children, 4-year-old Ajalah, and 5-day-old Gamya Neely, escaped from the upstairs apartment unhurt.

"Everybody's safe but everything's gone," Neely said. "I should have gotten more stuff out." Neely, who had just signed up for classes at Merced College, said he made sure his two children got out first.

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Division Chief Bryan Donnelly said the 7-year-olds admitted starting a fire in the alley, which caught the fence and garage on fire, spreading to other dwellings. The blaze extended to the apartment complex and the back of a vacant duplex at the corner of 19th and T streets.

Donnelly said the boys' parents were cooperative in the fire investigation. The youths are likely to be required to attend juvenile fire-setter courses put on by the fire department.

Neely said he had lived in the apartment for five to six months. He said somebody should have cleaned up garbage, weeds and other debris in the yard at the corner house.

Kathy Hassett, deputy director of the Merced County Human Services Agency, happened to be passing by as the fire broke out. She came to the Neelys' aid, cradling the newborn infant and comforting her distraught mother.

Hassett said her agency would coordinate with social service agencies to help the Neelys with temporary assistance and housing. She said fires like this are always very sad but it feels good to be able to help those in need afterward.

"It's a good feeling when we can help," Hassett said. "There are so many resources we can give."

Surrounding apartment dwellers, employees and patrons of Parker's Hardware were evacuated as the fire developed. One firefighter received minor injuries when he twisted his ankle.

Mitten said the fire progressed from first through third-alarm to general alarm status, meaning 15 off-duty personnel were called in and all five major engines were deployed. City of Atwater firefighters were asked to cover Merced stations while the firefighting efforts were under way.

Firefighters were concerned that rooftop air conditioning units on the apartment complex would plunge through the fire-weakened roof. The way the roof was designed made it difficult for firefighters to attack the fire. Firefighters were expected to remain on the scene until at least 7:30 p.m., Mitten said.

While the roof caved in on the second-story units, the downstairs units remained intact but sustained considerable water damage, Mitten said. He was not sure how many people ultimately were displaced from the apartment complex. Residents of an adjacent single-story apartment complex were allowed to return to their units.

Neely, who said he does housing construction, said he was using the bathroom when a neighbor banged on the door to alert him about the fire.

Merced Police Department Sgt. Jay Struble said he was leaving his Traffic Division office in the Parcade at West 18th and M streets when he saw the black clouds from the fire. When he arrived on scene, he observed downed Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines dancing on the ground.

John Lupica, who was watching over the vacant residence at 1835 T St., said a woman across the street reported the home had been broken into three times and youths were partying inside. He responded to lock up the house but did not believe the break-ins had anything to do with the fire. He said a sale was pending on the house and escrow was due to close next week before the fire broke out.

The fire, which shot up through the roof of the sixplex, also extended into mature trees in the neighboring property. Fire gutted the garage facing the alley between 18th and 19th streets and blackened trash in the backyard of the corner property.

Division Chief Steve Raney, the department's safety officer, said firefighters weren't allowed on the second-story roof of the apartment complex because of the dangers of cave-ins. The fire burned through the center before that roof ultimately caved in.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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