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Arsonist continues fiery rampage
Transients gut buildings before they are torched
Two Manteca firefighters trained their hose on the 20,000-square-foot structure Thursday night. - photo by Photo Courtesy Manteca Ambulance

An arsonist is continuing to destroy vacant buildings in Manteca.

The latest was the former Center Appliance sales office and warehouse on North Main Street that was torched shortly before midnight Thursday. Just a week ago an arsonist was suspected of burning a 20- by 80-foot outbuilding behind a vacant home on North Union Road.

Fire Chief Kirk Waters early this month expressed concern if the responsible parties aren’t caught that an arson fire could get out of control and destroy other buildings or - worse yet - a transient living inside one could get killed or a freighter battling the fires could get injured.

A nearby wooden frame home Thursday night was a concern as firefighters trained their hoses on it to make sure the extreme heat from the fire didn’t ignite it.

Heavy black smoke with flames leaping into the sky from the 20,000-square-foot former warehouse was seen by motorists on Highway 99 shortly before midnight.

The vacant commercial structure was destroyed in the fire that brought out two 100-foot ladder trucks in a mutual-aid effort from both Ripon and the Sharpe Depot fire departments.  Battalion Chief Kyle Shipherd set the loss at $500,000 for the building and $5,000 for its contents even though it had been bought by Caltrans for demolition earlier this year to make way for freeway construction at the planned Lathrop Road interchange.

Shipherd said that portions of the roof began to collapse after 10 minutes of his men attacking the blaze from several sides of the building.

After 15 minutes a full roof collapse occurred that forced firefighters away from the inferno for their safety.  The 100-foot ladder trucks dumped 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of water per minute on the fire that wasn’t totally under control for an hour.

Eight fire units responded to the scene with 24 career firefighters and four reserves that were called in to duty from their homes.  The fire units were at the scene until 3 a.m.

Shipherd noted that the building had drawn transients into the structure that had been using it for shelter since it had been abandoned at the end of May when ownership was transferred to Caltrans.  Friday afternoon one transient was seen inside the rear of the burned out building apparently searching through the debris.

Victor Fiore, co-owner of the appliance business, said Friday that the store had operated out of that location in the 2000 block of North Main Street for the last 33 years. 

Fiore said he first knew of the fire was when he received a frantic phone call from a relative, Jennifer Hastings, who had seen the blaze as she was driving down Highway 99.  She had been taking her niece, Francesca Poeschl, home who had just completed her opening night in the stage play “White Christmas” at the Stockton Civic Theater.

Fiore recalled a suspected mid-summer arson fire just across Main Street from his showroom.  He said Sheriff’s deputies recently ran off a number of transients who had attempted to make a home out of their buildings.

Transients use shopping carts to haul away metal

Thieves had removed all the heavy metal roofing from the 20,000-square-foot building and a companion 10,000-square-foot building to the north.

They were seen in pickup trucks as well as making use of shopping carts to haul off I-beams.  All of the electrical, plumbing and light fixtures had also stripped from the two buildings, in addition to the thefts of the industrial sized roll-up garage type doors.

Center Plumbing staffers said they were told by deputies that transients had been moving down the Highway 99 corridor hitting abandoned buildings bought for the construction project.  They had lived in the small frame houses at French Camp Road interchange construction site and stripped wires and took what they could before becoming squatters at the North Main Street location.

There are several businesses and houses on the Highway 99 southbound freeway side of North Main Street that have also been taken over by the state to make way for the Lathrop Road interchange construction.  Most of those structures have also been victimized by the transients.

“As soon as they abandoned these buildings, they came with shopping carts, trucks, whatever they could use,” Fiore said.

One staffer took a picture of a man with a pickup truck with I-beams hanging off the vehicle.  Another transient with a shopping cart had attempted to carry another 20-foot-long I-beam extending off both sides of his grocery basket.

Two men who were stripping the outside air conditioners last summer were detained by police who found that the truck they were driving had been reported stolen.  Several other transients had parked their motor homes next to the buildings and used them as their shelter, Fiore added.

A new Center Appliance sales showroom and warehouse opened in June west of the burned out building at 2020 North Crestwood Avenue, just south of Lathrop Road.

Center Appliance was established in 1949 when Frank Fiore, Sr. set up his showroom at Main and Center streets in downtown. The warehouse was located nearby at the corner of Center and Grant streets.  The business has been in operation now for some 63 years in Manteca.

Other suspicious fires

The string of suspicious arson fires plaguing Manteca include:

• Last month four transport vans were torched at East Union High for a loss of $100,000

• Last month the second fire this year and fourth fire in two years was set at the former agricultural commissioner’s office on Moffat Boulevard

• In July someone tried to burn down the Chili’s Restaurant by starting a fire near the rear door. The damage was placed at $100,000.

• In late May a boarded up two-story house in the 1700 block of North Main was destroyed with the loss estimated at $200,000. Arson was suspected in that fire as well.

• In June of 2011 a three-alarm fire topped $1.1 million in losses in the complex in the 700 block of North Main Street that housed Rocko’s Sports Bar among other businesses.

• Two other vacant buildings were burned along Moffat Boulevard last year.