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Neighbors fight fire with shovels, water buckets
Cathy Rubio was helping other neighbors trying to keep the fire from spreading. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

This may be the high-tech age but when fire threatened homes neighbors resorted to a low-tech response.

Friends and neighbors armed with buckets and shovels moved quicker than a computer download shortly before noon Monday to combat a fast-moving fire in the mid-section of the long block sandwiched between South Airport Way and Fishback Road just across from Sierra High.

Zandria Rakestraw actually saw the fire the moment it started.

"I saw a couple of kids playing there," she said, pointing to the area behind her next-door neighbors' property line to the west next to a gray metal barn and a thick stand of tall bamboos. She said she noticed the kids after she spotted the beginning of the fire.

"When I saw the kids, I called 911 right away," Rakestraw said.

As the fire quickly turned into a sizeable inferno, thanks to tinder-dry grass in the fields behind the 2.5-acre properties, she could hardly believe her eyes. "Not again," she thought.

It was barely three years ago - another neighbor said five years - when another fire on the eve of Memorial Day destroyed seven of their cars plus "a big tractor." The vehicles, still bearing the soot from that earlier conflagration, lined up along the western edge of the Rakestraws' property served as mute testimony to that other fiery event.

"That was a nightmare," she said as she recalled coming home and seeing their property on fire.

While the few people standing along Fishback Road watched the billowing black smoke grow bigger with one person calling the fire department on her cell phone, Rakestraw sprang into action. She grabbed a shovel from her back patio, rushed to the gate that connected her property to that of her neighbors' and quickly ran toward the wood fence on the south edge of Bobby and Gale Dorris' property. In hot pursuit behind her, also holding a shovel that he grabbed from the Dorris' patio, was Lenny Langdon who rushed to the burning site from his home at Pete Court on the other side of the Sierra High campus.

In a matter of seconds, other neighbors showed up armed with shovels that they also found in the Dorris' patio. Appearing in quick succession were Sandy Copeland, Cathy Rubio and Jenny Christopher.

Rubio said, "I was coming home when I saw the fire, and I said, oh, my God, they probably need help."

Rubio alternated between shoveling dirt onto the fast-moving grass fire and filling a bucket with water from the moss green dormant pool in the Dorris' back yard. Christopher also armed herself with a yellow bucket making several running trips from pool to fence.

Together, the ragtag army of bucket and shovel-wielding fire fighters feverishly fought the crackling fire along the wooden fence that seemed determined to reach the home adjacent to the Dorris property which had two large sheds, a cherry picker, and a cement mixer in the back yard. Rakestraw said the owners of the property own a roofing business in Manteca.

A short while later, several firefighters who were in a Manteca Fire truck that accessed the back of the properties from South Airport Way, directed the volunteer neighbors to step back as they brought in the water hoses. One firefighter even borrowed a shovel from one of the volunteers. Another fire truck arrived from Fishback Road and attacked the fire from the other side of the fence.

As the neighbors stepped back and watched, the thick stand of bamboo at the western edge of the roofers' property erupted in flames.

Langdon said he rushed out of his house on Pete Court when "I heard the sound of the flames popping."

He quickly ran to the Dorris' front door to alert his friends. "We ride motorcycles together," Langdon said.

"I banged their door and called but there was no answer," he said.

At the tail-end of the fire, the Dorris' daughter, Haley, arrived home from her class in Stockton where she is studying to be a veterinary technician.

"I am p...d," she said, reacting to the fire and surmising that the main culprit was the stand of bamboos.

When the city annexed their area about 10 years ago, she said they told the city that the bamboos were "a problem." The city told them to "cut this grass," she said as she kicked the dry grass in the field behind her house. They complied, she said, but the city never went after the owners of the bamboos.

"We told them and told them and told them (about the bamboos) but they (the city) did nothing. So this is what happens every time," Hayley Dorris said of the fire. She said the last fire destroyed a shed behind their house.

"Everything in the shed was precious to me."

That Memorial Day fire, Rakestraw said, was started by someone mowing their grass.

Rakestraw, who has lived in the property with her husband for about 25 years, said that the bamboo was planted "when this was all farmland."

She said it was planted by someone named Tony Goncalves who farmed the area before it was subdivided into two-and-a-half acres.

"He planted the bamboo as a windbreaker for the crops and to cut down the noise from Airport Way," Rakestraw explained.

Properties on the other side of the Fishback homes fared worse from Monday's fire. One trailer that housed a family of five was destroyed, leaving the homeowners looking for temporary quarters.