As flames raced through the back of his home Wednesday, Manuel Rodriguez rushed outside clutching the only possessions he could grab – photographs of his teenage son who died four years ago.
“We lost everything else, but I got those pictures,” the 40-year-old Merced man said. “It burned up the fridge – just everything else, I think.”
None of Rodriguez’s eight family members, including three boys ages 2, 3 and 6, were injured, but the fire gutted their Nellie Street home.
Flames broke out around 11:30 a.m. behind several homes in the 600 block of North Kibby Road. Those homes share backyard areas with Rodriguez’s home on Nellie Street, just west of Highway 140.
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The fire was extinguished around 1:30 p.m., but cleanup efforts continued for several more hours.
The blaze also claimed three other nearby homes. The fire displaced 15 people. No injuries were reported.
“All four buildings were residential homes, about 1,200 square feet each” said Jeremy Rahn, Merced County Fire Department battalion chief. “We were able to save two other homes from any damage.”
Two other buildings sustained less serious damage, firefighters said.
Rahn said the cause of the fire was not immediately known.
Initial reports put damage estimates at more than $300,000. Firefighters said three other homes were threatened during the blaze but sustained no damage.
Several families reported losing pets in the fire, including dogs and cats. About a dozen pets were saved and taken to animal shelters for the time being, according to firefighters and residents.
About 24 firefighters responded from the Merced County and Merced city fire departments with seven engines and two water tenders.
Crews from Riggs Ambulance Service were on scene as a precaution and supplied water to the residents and firefighters. PG&E Corp. crews helped shut off power and gas to the area, which likely prevented further damage, Rahn said.
About the same time, a second, unrelated fire gutted an apartment on Loughborough Drive, displacing four residents, according to Merced Fire Department Capt. Tony Giotta.
No injuries were reported at the Loughborough fire, which occurred around 11:15 a.m. and was started by a lit cigarette, firefighters said.
The American Red Cross was called to assist the displaced residents at both fires, including Rodriguez and his family.
Rodriguez’s cousin, Frank Vaca, lived in a neighboring trailer on Nellie Street that was also heavily damaged. “I cleared the propane tank out of there, helped round up the kids and started yelling for everybody to get out,” said Vaca, 40.
His yelling woke up 28-year-old Allison Calder, who hustled her three young boys outside.
“I got scared; I heard him yelling ‘fire, fire’ and I jumped. I was asleep before,” Calder said.
Rodriguez said he has lived in his home for more than 10 years. He said he wasn’t sure Wednesday afternoon what he was going to do, but said he felt relieved to have saved the last photographs of his 14-year-old son, Christopher, who died in 2010 after he was struck by a vehicle on Highway 140 not far from his home.
“I got those few pictures,” he said. “That’s good at least.”