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Roof collapse sends two Modesto firefighters to hospitals

A fire started by a dropped candle near a generator injured two firefighters and destroyed a central Modesto house late Friday.

Modesto Fire Department engineer James Adams suffered burns over 40 percent of his body and was being treated at the University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said Saturday. Firefighter Jason Clevenger was burned over 10 percent of his body and was being treated at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

Adams, 46, and Clevenger, 32, were on top of the Coston Avenue house, getting ready to break through the roof to remove heat and smoke from below.

"They set out with a tool to ensure the stability of the roof," Patino said. Both men fell through the roof "into the room that was well-involved in fire," Patino said.

"The firefighter told me it felt like he was standing on a mattress," Patino said.

A mayday call immediately went out. A team went in to remove Adams and Clevenger from the house and they were taken to local hospitals. A helicopter was called to take Adams to Sacramento, but it couldn't take off because of dense overnight fog.

Adams was instead taken by ambulance with a police escort. Officers helped bring his wife down from their Calaveras County home, Patino said.

He said Adams suffered injuries that are severe but not life-threatening. His respiratory system, always a concern with serious burns, is functioning and his airway is clear.

The majority of Adams' injuries were second-degree burns. The rest were third- degree burns.

The fire started shortly after 11:30 p.m.

A woman who lived at the house, which had no electricity, lit a candle to see how much gas was in a gas generator she was using. She dropped the candle and the gas caught fire, Patino said.

Wendy White said that as soon as the fire began, she rounded up her two children, ages 11 and 14, and ran out of the house. There was no time to get any belongings.

"The generator we had exploded ... and I got my kids and we ran out of the house," White said. "I went over to the neighbor's house and called the fire department."

She said there was a lot of smoke as the Fire Department arrived, and as soon as they cut a hole in the roof, flames shot out.

Family fixing up the home

The home has been without electricity for about two years, neighbors said, and squatters and drug abusers lived in it while it went through foreclosure. The people who have been living there since the summer were fixing it up after the house sold at auction, said Roy Everett, who lives next door.

"She asked me to come over once and start the generator," he said. "It was in the garage. There were no lights, but I could smell gasoline. I was standing in a puddle of gas. I refused to start it."

Everett said the family has been working on the house, removing spray paint and fixing other damage.

"They came over during the summer to swim," he said.

It appeared that either poor construction or an alteration to the roof over the garage may have contributed to its collapse. Patino said the roof's structural support members were either removed or compromised to the point that the roof was not able to withstand the fire's effects or the weight of the firefighters.

He said the department was investigating the fire, why the roof collapsed, and whether any charges will be filed.

"It looks like an accident," Patino said.

Red Cross workers helped the family find a place to stay, and with food and clothes. Bill Richardson, who was on the scene Saturday morning, said firefighters managed to save one family member left behind.

"They said there was a turtle in a bucket," he said. "I asked one of the firefighters, and he said he thought he saw one crawling around in there."

They tracked down the turtle, named Bumper, and put him aside to be picked up later.

"I could hear them scream on the phone when I told them we found the turtle," Richardson said. "In times like this, the smallest thing is the biggest thing."

Patino said it had been seven or eight years since a department firefighter was seriously injured on the job. Adams is a 24-year veteran of the department; Clevenger has been with the department for four years.

"The mood is pretty somber right now," he said. "These guys did everything right. I've had captains with 30 years of experience say they've never seen anything like this."

Patino estimated the loss at $25,000. He urged residents to be smart when using a generator, which should be used outside in well-ventilated areas.

He said residents should wait to refuel generators until they're cool enough that the threat of igniting vapors is reduced. Never use an open flame to illuminate a work area. Use a flashlight instead.

On Saturday, Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel said many members of the firefighting community and local law enforcement expressed their concerns and offered help for the injured firefighters and their families.

"We are truly grateful for all of the concern and love that has been shown for our injured brothers and their families today," Miguel said.

Bee Online Editor Brian Clark can be reached at bclark@modbee.com or 578-2362. Staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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