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Homeless warming fire one of potential causes being investigated
A Sunday morning fire destroyed three buildings of a 164-uinit apartment complex under construction at Van Ryn Avenue and Woodward Avenue. - photo by Photo courtesy Manteca Fire Department

The four-alarm fire Sunday morning that destroyed a third of the 164 apartment units being built at Atherton Drive and Van Ryn Avenue is expected to reach  millions of dollars making it the most destructive fire in Manteca history.

Manteca Fire Chief Kyle Shipherd said the fire was suspicious in origin and is under investigation. Shipherd acknowledged it could easily have been caused by individuals attempting to keep warm during the cool night temperatures. 

The $30 million project has been plagued for months by problems caused by homeless and gang members, according to developer Mike Atherton.

“In a day of bad news the good news is the Manteca Fire Department did its job,” Atherton said.

There was a general consensus between fire officials and construction personnel that had the response been delayed for a few minutes that the entire complex could have been lost.

Firefighters were helped by the fact on-site fire hydrants were in place. Shipherd said firefighters used all three hydrants plus one along the street.

Atherton expects the project’s completion to be delayed significantly.

“We’ve got to clean it up and go from there,” Atherton said. 

He said there is no estimate yet on the dollar loss that he said will be compounded by construction delays and a postponed opening. The three buildings that were lost were among the farthest along in terms of construction and backed up to the 120 Bypass. Overall there are nine buildings in the Tesoro Apartments complex.

Manteca Fire Department and Manteca Police investigators are in the process of investigating the actual cause. Shipherd said firefighters would be on the scene for at least 24-hours seeking out hot spots in the smoldering embers and tearing down the remains of the three structures.

The fire was called into a 911 dispatcher by a watchman living in a trailer on the property when he began his morning rounds and spotted the blaze in the eastern most apartment building.

Forty-five firefighters responded from fire departments in Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop, and Ripon bringing three 100-foot ladder trucks that were used to pour water on the fire from above.

Flames leaped as high as 50 feet causing several fender bender accidents on the 120 Bypass.  Firefighters and an ambulance on the scene of the apartment fire had to pull away and respond to those accidents not knowing how serious they were at the time of the call.

Water from the fire hoses puddled turning the ground into slippery mud for firefighters. 

Smoke could be seen funneling into the sky from Ripon. 

Volunteers from the Manteca Seniors Helping Area Residents and Police (SHARP) as well as Manteca Seniors Aiding Fire Effort (SAFE) assisted with traffic control as well as bringing water and sandwiches for fighters. Many of the firefighters spent over three hours attacking the blaze.

Prior to ground breaking for the apartment complex the homeless routinely set up  illegal camps in the Caltrans right of way along the 120 Bypass that backs up to the construction site. At one point more than two dozen illegal campsites were strung out along the 120 Bypass between Highway 99 and the Paseo Villas apartments west of Main Street where the elevated freeway as well as shrubs and trees provided cover. Most have been on the south side where two existing apartment complexes as well as the Manteca Business Park are located. They also have camped on the north side behind Spreckels Business Park.

Manteca Police have been working with three different Caltrans maintenance operations to try and stay on top of illegal encampments as much as possible. Caltrans personnel in Tracy are responsible for the 120 Bypass, Caltrans personnel in Modesto for Highway 99 from the south to the 120 Bypass, and Caltrans personnel in Stockton for Highway 99 from the north to the 120 Bypass. Based on court decisions Caltrans crews must post illegal encampments before clearing them.

A worker at the apartment complex told firefighters that his firm had been chasing homeless men out of the construction site for the past several weeks adding that they kept returning to the area. 

 A number of vacant homes and buildings have been set on fire in recent years by “warming fires” believed to have been set by homeless individuals. The list includes three homes that were set on fire more than once — the Gordon property house on Union Road, a small house that served as a used car lot sales office on Yosemite at Lincoln avenues, and a house in the 600 block of North Lincoln — that were eventually torn done. Other building fires that the homeless were suspected of having warming fires that gutted or destroyed structures include a shuttered meat packing building on West Yosemite, three different structures on Moffat Boulevard that has since been demolished, a house across from Manteca High at Garfield Avenue and Mikesell Street, and the two-story Sycamore Arms structure consisting of efficiency apartments on the second floor and commercial on the bottom floor.


To contact Glenn Kahl, email