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Blaze destroys apartment complex
A downtown apartment complex vacated after squatters took it over months ago was hit by a suspected arsonist at 4:20 a.m. Tuesday. - photo by Photos by Richard Silverman

A suspected arson fire destroyed a two-story downtown Manteca apartment complex at the corner of Yosemite and Sycamore avenues.

Crews searching for possible victims inside the structure were pushed back by heavy black smoke and fire that spread into the upstairs apartments.  Manteca Fire Battalion Chief David Marques said that a third alarm for the fire first reported at 4:21 a.m. on Tuesday was eventually sounded.  Hose lines were deployed up the stairs in an effort to halt the spread of the fire that had gotten into sub-flooring between the downstairs and the upstairs of the structure. 

A coordinated fire attack with roof top ventilation accomplished by firefighters resulted in a knockdown of the blaze within 45 minutes of the initial dispatch, Marques said.  When the chief first arrived on the scene, he reported seeing 20-foot-high flames coming from the rear of the building.

There were 42 firefighters at the three alarm blaze with fire companies responding from Manteca, Manteca-Lathrop, Tracy and Ripon departments.

There were three suites on the ground floor along with the multiple apartment complex on the second floor that extended the length of the building that were torched by the flames and further damaged by smoke.  The apartment complex has a history of people breaking in and sleeping inside, the chief said.

Earlier in the year squatters broke into the vacant building and took over the complex that later got them evicted by authorities. They had entered the building after climbing the back fence and breaking into the structure.

Later in the morning Tuesday, salvage and overhaul operations were initiated. The structure was searched for concealed fires and smoke indicators of possible hot spots that might rekindle.  One was discovered half way down the upstairs hallway and extinguished. The initial fire investigation was headed by Manteca’s Prevention Unit 24 and a call was made for the response of the San Joaquin County Arson Task Force.

Firefighters diligence in searching out other hidden embers that might have brought them back out Tuesday night was praised by Fire Chief Kirk Waters.

Waters said he couldn’t say enough how great a job firefighters did at the fire in bringing it under control and searching for possible victims in the blaze.

“Even though the building was thought to be vacant, we were worried there may have been homeless in the buildings and my guys worked so hard to get the fire knocked down and buildings searched to be sure no one was inside,” Waters said. “I really appreciate the values that they have and the way they represent the Manteca Fire Department and the City of Manteca.  It was something to see.”

The owners of the building were on the scene hoping to find a resource to help them rebuild at the city or county level. They said they have no insurance and were in need of some type of help to rebuild – also hoping downtown merchants would join them in hiring a nighttime security officer who could keep an eye on Yosemite Avenue shops to prevent further crime and fires in the area.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.