The Record, Stockton, Calif.
Terrified families fled their homes early Tuesday when they discovered a pallet yard next door on fire, recalling the devastating pallet fire from two years ago just blocks away that decimated or severely damaged five homes, left two residents injured and destroyed seven cars.
Tuesday’s fire at Central Pallets, 1881 E. Market St., next door to St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church on East Main, started sometime before 5 a.m. when it was discovered by nearby residents waking up to popping noises, heat and light from the tall flames, and people screaming.
Several residents in the small neighborhood east of A Street contacted 911 to report the fire while choking back smoke as it passed over them. They gathered children, older adults, pets, papers and photos and simply ran or got into their vehicles and drove to safety.
“We were scared,” said Carlos Estrada, who has lived one house away from the pallet yard for the past seven years. “My wife saw the flames and called 911 and then we just grabbed some clothes and papers and the cars and left.”
The Stockton Fire Department responded quickly, raising it to five alarms with every firefighter in the city responding to the scene. Several fire crews from as far as Linden and Manteca also responded to aid city firefighters.
Despite the “dangerous exposure” to nearby homes, firefighters were able to contain the blaze primarily to the pallet yard, saving the threatened homes on the east side of A Street with only some minor damage reported. At least one vehicle parked on A Street sustained some heat damage. St. Gertrude’s and nearby businesses were spared from any damage.
According to fire officials, the only serious damage was at the pallet yard. A shed collapsed and a large metal warehouse was burned, but it was too soon to determine the extent of that damage. Hundreds of pallets were destroyed and many continued to burn and smolder throughout the day Tuesday.
Some firefighters suffered cuts and bruises, but no serious injuries were reported. A disabled woman in a wheelchair fell and hurt her arm as she was being pushed away from the flames, according to several neighbors who said she appeared to be OK later.
A man identifying himself as the owner of Central Pallets declined to comment as he stood outside the large complex, waiting for firefighters to allow him back on the property. He stood next to more than a dozen employees wondering when they can return to work.
On May 25, 2017, five homes on the south side of nearby East Weber Avenue were either destroyed or sustained serious damage during a wind-driven blaze at a now-closed pallet yard across the street. The fire went to four alarms as a wall of flames in the pallet yard grew and sent embers toward homes as far as Myrtle Street. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky and could be seen as far as Lodi.
Two residents were injured, one reportedly burned while running down a sidewalk to escape and another from severe smoke inhalation. Six empty railcars sitting on tracks north of the pallet yard also sustained major damage, and at least seven vehicles parked along East Weber were destroyed.
The cause of Tuesday’s fire will be determined as soon as it is safe for cause-of-origin investigators to search the property and enter the metal warehouse.
Sonya Sanchez moved to the neighborhood just six months ago.
“When I first saw (the fire), it looked like it was in our backyard. We grabbed the kids, woke the neighbor up and got him out. You could feel the heat. It was scary,” Sanchez said.
As Sanchez ran to get her car parked on the street, she said “it was raining sparks. I could feel the smoke in my lungs.”
Several neighbors, including Sanchez and Estrada, said they had previous concerns with Central Pallets.
“This pallet place is pretty dangerous, and to have it around here with houses and kids isn’t good. The neighbors want to get a petition together,” Sanchez said.
Estrada said he noticed that business at Central Pallets appeared to be increasing around the beginning of the year as the stacks of wood pallets continued getting higher and higher.
“We want to put in a complaint about this company,” he said.
Lifelong neighborhood resident Ernie Prendez, 67, who also fled from the flames, said he recently mentioned to his wife that the pallet facility had grown too quickly and appeared to be a fire trap.
In response to the fire, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued a health caution for east Stockton and eastern San Joaquin County.
Smoke from fires produces fine-particulate matter known as PM2.5 that can cause serious health problems including lung disease, asthma attacks and an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. People with existing respiratory conditions, young children and the elderly are especially susceptible, according to the air district. The caution urges residents to follow their doctor’s orders when exposed to PM2.5 and stay indoors if at all possible.
Contact reporter Joe Goldeen at (209) 546-8278 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGoldeen.
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