The thick, acrid smoke that swirled and billowed over parts of Turlock Tuesday came from a fire that burned down one of the city’s longtime eateries.
A fire ravaged through the former Almond Tree Restaurant at 2243 Lander Ave. late Tuesday morning, bringing the structure down to a pile of debris and rubble.
A man seen near the structure as the fire erupted was initially arrested for an unrelated warrant, according to the Turlock Police Department, but subsequently was charged in connection with the Almond Tree fire. Shannon Zumbrunnen, 44, of Turlock, was arrested for reckless burning. He was booked into the Stanislaus County Jail.
As of noon on Tuesday there were no reported injuries. Turlock Fire Department Division Chief Mark Gomez said it was unknown how much of the fire had been contained at that point and that the firefighters were still making a defensive attack on the flames.
The fire was first reported by Kaalya Moniz who, along with her boyfriend, spotted the flames as they were on southbound Highway 99.
“We saw this small flame coming from the building and my boyfriend said to call the cops,” Moniz said. “Then we saw a man right next to it.”
The couple pulled into the parking lot of the Arco gas station which is next door, just as the restaurant windows started to explode.
“My boyfriend grabbed a fire extinguisher and started to run towards it, but I told him ‘no’ it was too far gone,” Moniz said.
Around that time Moniz and her boyfriend, who is a correctional officer and did not want his name used, saw the man, later identified as Zumbrunnen, walking away from the area.
“My boyfriend chased after him and the cops arrived and took him into custody over at Denny’s,” Moniz said. “Before he walked away from us we heard him say ‘that’s my camp.’”
Nirmal Singh, who owns the Arco station next door, said his family member, Prabhjot Singh, owns the restaurant and that they had been in the process of working on the facility to reopen it one day. He said since the business closed in May 2016 they have had a constant problem with transients setting up make shift camps around the restaurant.
The gas pumps were all shut down as the fire grew in intensity. Turlock Irrigation District also cut the power line into the restaurant.
The smoke from the fire was causing visibility issues for motorists on the Highway and the exit to Lander Avenue was closed down.
Gomez said the department responded to the blaze with all four engines and a truck that was used to make an aerial attack on the flames as they raced through the interior and along the rooftop. The flames turned the Almond Tree sign that had faced Highway 99 travelers for decades into a twisted piece of steel.
Keyes Fire had a water truck on site and other agencies provided city coverage.
The Almond Tree served as a watering hole and eatery for Turlock residents and travelers for more than 30 years before it closed its doors.