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Did squatters cause fire?
Homeless suspected of setting fire at partially burned-down property
A Manteca firefighter battles Friday evenings fire on Corwin Drive. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Investigators are looking into the possibility the Friday evening fire at the vacant and previously burned home and the wooded land it sits on was caused by homeless squatters.

Black smoke could be seen billowing hundreds of feet into the sky from as far away as Ripon from the fire that started shortly after 8 p.m. Friday.  The fire was across the street from the Sequoia Heights Baptist Church on South Union Road in Manteca.

Fire Chief Kirk Waters credited the department’s 100-foot aerial platform — stationed a block away — with getting water on the fire immediately as well as spraying water on adjoining homes to prevent embers from spreading the fire.

Waters said that old tires on the property served as added fuel in the blaze that burned up to one acre of brush on the 3 ½ acre site that includes an abandoned home and outbuildings at 1085 South Union Road.

 One of the squatters, a female who was seen by some of the area residents leaving the property right when the fire started, was being interviewed by authorities while firefighters fought the smoky conflagration by spraying the fire from a giant hose atop the 100-foot aerial platform.

Many of the residents in the quiet Suess Court and Corwin Street neighborhoods on the south side of what residents simply refer to as the Gordon property have lived here for the last two decades or more. They still vividly remember the last fire that destroyed most of the Gordon house, the barn behind it and the thick stand of trees around them.  The previous fire had started by a lightning strike according to a family member Shelly Abbott

The Mahaffie family, whose house is just across the fence from the burning property, first noticed the fire around 8 p.m. while Lanell Mahaffie, his visiting son Dan and his daughter were enjoying ice cream inside the house. It was Dan’s daughter who first noticed the smoke.

“For a few minutes, we tried to shoot everything down with our garden hose and tried to put this out ourselves,” said Dan who lives across town from his mother’s home on Suess Court.

Just two houses from the fire live John and Marlena Bakmas. They didn’t notice the fire until the fire chief’s white car arrived along with the first fire truck that brought along the aerial. The Bakmas have lived there for more than two decades and, like most of their longtime neighbors, still remember the first fire of about a decade ago that burned the Gordon property. That first fire burned most of the Gordons’ white house with the white columns, the barn in the back, and the mature trees that bordered the property.

Like most of the residents in the “quiet enclave of two courts” – Corwin and Suess – the Bakmas said they have been “worried because of squatters” breaking into the vacant and burned out property.

The Mahaffies have, in fact, called the police a number of times to report the presence of squatters in the vacant lot behind their back fence.

“They’ve come many times,” Dan Mahaffie said of the Manteca Police. “They’re pretty quick. They do a good job.”

The first fire that burned the place caused the transformer at the corner of the property to explode. Friday night, that didn’t happen. However, what caused some concern was the strong evening wind that carried the thick, dark smoke in a wide swath eastward past South Austin Road.

Abbott, who was standing on the sidewalk with her son, recalled what it had been like to grow up in that home years ago.  The property is no longer owned by the family.

 “This was the place to be for me and my three brothers and the kids from school,” Abbott said. 

The family had two irrigation ditches running through the property along with a six foot watering hole filled with irrigation water – deep enough to dive into, she added.  There was even a rope they could use to swing into the pool.

After their dad died and their mother went to a nursing home, the family had to put up a chain link fence years ago to keep the drifters off the property, she said.  But the fence was continually cut by squatters who would make their home in the house and in the barn and outbuildings.  The electric box was stripped of its copper wire eliminating the power source to the house, she added.

“As kids we had a lot of a lot of forts that we built and we had a hay barn where we could play along with a big tree house,” she said.  “It was a great place to grow up.”

After the fence was installed a coyote somehow got onto the property and wouldn’t leave, she added. 

“We named him Wiley the Coyote.” Neighbors would feed the animal by throwing steaks over the fence.  Some neighbors complained to animal control and the coyote was finally euthanized,” she recalled.

There were 35 full time and reserve personnel called to the scene including a mutual aid response from the Lathrop-Manteca Fire Department.