"What a night," said Merced City Fire Division 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 at least three of them are under investigation for arson.
The first fire call came in at 2:26 a.m. Saturday, Raney said. The house, at 815 Olive Avenue, was empty and had recently been through foreclosure.
"The house was already fully engulfed when we got there," Raney said. While the firefighters were battling that blaze, another call came in at 3:11 a.m.
This time the house was occupied.
The home, at 3074 Sycamore Ave., was just around the corner from the first fire.
The Calderon family, whose house on Sycamore was burned to nothing more than a charred shell, was awakened when they said an object was thrown through a window of the house. 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 re-enter. 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 Calderon. "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."
Raney said when the city fire department responded to the first blaze at 2:26 a.m., one of the firetrucks drove right past the Sycamore address.
"There was no fire showing at that time," Raney said. "A few minutes later it was fully engulfed in flames."
Then another fire call came in at 3:28 a.m. This time it was at 400 Alexander Ave.
"These fires were all within a quarter-mile radius," Raney said.
The fire on Alexander only burned a shutter on a home, but Raney said the shutter was literally melted off the home.
An arson dog was brought from Fresno, and Raney said the dog hit on both the Olive Avenue and Sycamore Avenue homes.
"The dog hit on several locations at the Olive Avenue home," Raney said. "The dog also hit on the Sycamore Avenue home."
The evidence that was gathered by the arson investigators is being analyzed, Raney said.
The Merced Police Department is investigating the fires as arson. Lt. Tom Trindad said the department is asking anyone who has information to call the police department's tip line at (209) 385-4725.
A fourth fire, on 24th Street, came in after the first three fires and had to be responded to by county firetrucks because the city trucks were at the other three fires, Raney said. That fire was a mattress fire, and he said it isn't believed to be arson-related.
One of the survivors of the Sycamore Avenue fire almost didn't make it. Raney said a pet rabbit, named Penelope, looked dead when she was brought out of the fire.
"I thought she was suffering, so I took her to the veterinarian," Raney said.
But the veterinarians at Animal Medical Center treated the bunny for burns and fluid on the lungs, and Raney said the care was being donated by the hospital.
"Penelope is OK, that made a good thing out of a bad thing," Raney said.
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 and father-in-law. "He works so much -- from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. 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 Calderon on 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.
View Feb. 13 arson fires in Merced in a larger map