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Massive fire burns through downtown industrial area
fire pic3
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A raging inferno sparked up inside a pallet company on Monday swept through three businesses in an industrial neighborhood of Turlock, destroying property, charring vehicles, and sending up thick billowing plumes of black smoke that could be seen from miles away.

The blaze burned fiercely for more than two hours as fire crews battled to keep the flames from consuming the better part of Yerena’s Pallet Company, Brite Electric, and Shehan’s Transport Refrig, all located in the area of D and S. First streets.

No one was injured from the fire, though up to 10 firefighters had to be temporarily removed from the front lines of the blaze as the scorching flames and the sweltering 101 degrees temperature took a toll on them. Turlock City Fire Division Chief Tim Lohman said the firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion at the scene by American Medical Response crews and were released to continue fighting the fire.

The cause of the fire remains unknown and is likely to remain so for a while, as investigators shift through large piles of debris and burned rubble, searching for clues to the fire’s origin.

The fire was first reported at 3:53 p.m. Monday at Yerena’s Pallet Company at 510 S. First St. Chris Shehan, the owner of Shehan’s Transport Refrig, said he smelled the scent of smoke and then saw flames erupt from a pile of wooden pallets.

“My son saw it first and the flames were coming up right behind Brite Electric,” Shehan said. “He was with them trying to put the fire out, but it got hot real quick and they all had to get out of there.”

From the main fire that originated in the pallet yard, a total of 23 other hot spots flared up, Lohman said. As the fire fed itself on the dry wood, it spread to the other two businesses, where it found vehicles and tractor-trailers to fuel its flames. At the height of the blaze, the flames were shooting up at least 30 to 40 feet in the air and a dense cloud of black smoke blanketed the general vicinity.

As the fire grew in strength and size, employees from the surrounding businesses scrambled to remove as many vehicles and items from the path of the flames as they could. Workers at the nearby Turlock Unified School District vehicle yard were able to move several buses away from the encroaching heat and flames.

The sheer size and scope of the inferno forced fire crews to adopt defensive tactics that would hold the blaze at bay. A total of 31 firefighters from five agencies — Turlock City, Turlock Rural, Denair, Keyes and Mountain View — were working to bring the fire under control. The Turlock Police Department also was on scene to keep people and vehicles out of the area and to assist in the ensuing investigation.

Fire personnel remained on scene until 10:30 p.m. to fully extinguish the various hot spots and launch their investigation. Lohman said it took a total of 500,000 gallons of water to fight the fire.

The fire department’s initial dollar estimate for damage done by the blaze was placed at $300,000, which includes $200,000 for property damage and $100,000 for contents. However, Lohman said the estimate was “a best guess and could be totally different,” once the insurance companies survey the losses.

Lost in the flames were sheds and storage containers, as well as several employee vehicles and tractor-trailers. Shehan said at least six of the trailers at his business were completely destroyed by the fire.

“It’s going to be a big mess to clean up,” he said. “But I want to thank the fire departments because they did a real good job of containing it.”

When the fire spread to the various vehicles, several loud booms and smaller pops could be heard, which was likely caused by exploding tires, Lohman said.

Shehan said the vehicles at his property had little to no fuel inside them.

Michael Benthall was at Shehan’s Transport Refrig collecting recyclables when he noticed a strong smell of smoke wafting through the air. Benthall ran to assist those trying to put the flames out and during those initial moments of chaos, he became separated from his dog. When he tried to get back into the lot to rescue his stranded pooch, he was rebuffed by the fire and police personnel who told him it was no longer safe to go back in there. That’s when Benthall said he started getting a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Things can be replaced, but not a dog,” Benthall said. Especially that guy. He’s like a son to me.”

Fortunately, Benthall’s experience with the fire ended on a happy note when a firefighter came out pulling a chain with a scruffy and wet mutt tethered on the other end. Benthall said the dog’s name is “Toughy” and it appears he earned that moniker on Monday.

To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.