The fire that brought the former Almond Tree restaurant to a pile of charred rubble was started by a 44-year-old transient who was using the space behind the former eatery as a makeshift camp.
Shannon Zumbrunnen, of Turlock, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of reckless burning. He remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail in lieu of a $25,000 bail. Zumbrunnen also was arrested on two charges of possession of a controlled substance, and the bail amounts for those are $5,000 each. He has been arraigned on the charges and has a pretrial hearing set for March 1.
The fire at the eatery was reported at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday by Kaalya Moniz and her boyfriend, who noticed the flicker of flames as they drove southbound on Highway 99. The couple also saw a man, later identified as Zumbrunnen, at the scene and heard him say that the area was his camp before he walked away. He was taken into custody at the Denny’s on Lander Avenue.
Zumbrunnen was not charged with arson, because arson is the setting of a fire with the intent to cause property damage or injury while reckless burning is causing property damage with fire without the intent to cause damage or injury, explained Turlock Police spokesperson Sgt. Neil Cervenka.
The first firefighters to arrive at the restaurant found thick smoke and flames licking the eaves of the building. Firefighters first attacked the outside fire and then made an interior attack from the opposite side of the building, but because the fire was growing at a rapid pace the firefighters had to exit the structure and take a defense approach to fighting the blaze.
“Turlock Firefighters arrived to find heavy fire conditions throughout the entire building and worked quickly to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring businesses,” said Turlock Fire Operations Chief Gary Carlson. “Shortly after fire operations began, the roof of the building began to fail, causing sections to collapse. Thankfully, no one was in the building at the time of the roof failure.”
Firefighters utilized the ladder truck to direct they water spray to the top of the building and prevent it from jumping to the hotel located next door.
Battalion Chief Gary Lunsford said approximately 1,000 gallons of water per minute were used to keep the fire in check and eventually extinguish it. Crews then utilized heavy equipment brought in by the property owner to level portions of the building which were still standing and to assist with overhaul. Crews were on scene for more than seven hours due to the magnitude of the fire, size of the building, and the fire load, according to the fire department.
In total, four engines, one ladder truck, one water tender, one battalion chief, and three chief officers from Turlock Fire Department were present. The Modesto Fire Department and Stanislaus Consolidated Fire, responded with an engine and a battalion chief bringing the total number of firefighters to 19. Those agencies were later re-routed to provide city coverage while all Turlock City resources were committed on the scene.
Both the Turlock police and fire departments continue to investigate the fire. Anyone with information regarding this incident is encouraged to call Detective Jason Tosta at 209-664-7324 or Fire Marshal Mark Gomez at 209 669-2119.