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Investigators unsure of cause, but say incident unrelated to an earlier fire
A FILIPINO family in Northern California woke up to find their house threatened by flames during the predawn hours of Saturday, August 13, less than a day after firefighters had put out an earlier blaze in the same area.
Fire crews extinguished a fire that consumed a shed, pumphouse and less than an acre of rural land in Coarsegold, California near the corner of Highway 41 and Black Oak Road shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, August 12. Investigators told one of the homeowners that the fire started in a shed on the property and might have been caused by an electrical issue involving a malfunctioning heating blanket.
Power was cut to the house while the investigation of the first fire took place, then restored at about 8 p.m. The home’s occupants fell asleep sometime after 11 p.m., but were forced out of their beds by a second fire just hours later.
“At about 3 a.m. my husband woke up, noticed there was too much light for that time of night, and heard the bullets popping,” Mary “Lyn” Aguillon, 59, told the Asian Journal.
She owns the home along with her husband, Antonio, 69.
At that time, eight people were inside as the conflagration circled the home, including the couple’s 1-year-old grandson. Two of the house’s tenants and Antonio Aguillon suffer from disabilities affecting their mobility.
Lyn Aguillon helped the home’s occupants get to the family’s car, then had to run back inside to retrieve her keys. She said flames had spread to inside the home when she returned from the vehicle and saw windowpanes shatter due to the heat as she raced back out.
“We could have lost our lives,” Aguillon told the Asian Journal over the phone.
Firefighters returned to the property just after 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, but multiple reports of gunfire in the area prevented them from immediately approaching the scene. Sheriff’s deputies investigated and determined that heat from the fire was setting off loose ammunition.
Crews used eight fire engines and a bulldozer to put out the blaze. They managed to contain the situation by about 5 a.m. No people were reported injured as a result of the incident, but firefighters were unable to prevent the Aguillon’s home from burning down.
“I loved that house,” said Aguillon, who wishes she could have saved her jewelry to help the family pay for expenses while an insurance company processes their claims. “We don’t have anything.”
The couple hasn’t yet decided whether to rebuild the home or move to a new one. Relatives have set up a GoFundMe page to help the family recover from the disaster.
Investigators are still working to discover the cause of the second fire, but say it was unrelated to the initial blaze. Madera County Fire’s Public Information Officer, Jamie Williams, told the Asian Journal that the department has no reason to believe one caused the other.
However, Aguillon alleges that firefighters failed to conduct proper cleanup and follow-up procedures after the initial fire, thereby contributing to her home’s incineration.
“They didn’t remove the trees that were burned,” said Aguillon. “They didn’t chop them down. They didn’t dig them [out].”
She also said a vehicle belonging to the sheriff’s department blocked their exit when they reached the end of their driveway while fleeing the burning property on Saturday. Aguillon accuses a deputy of harassing her family after she drove off-road and around the other car. She said the fire’s survivors were accused of making drugs.
“He said ‘why do you have so much ammunition … do you have a meth lab?’” Aguillon told the Asian Journal.
Aguillon said the deputy went on to suggest that the residents were manufacturing honey oil, a concentrated version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
The production of both drugs can pose fire and combustion hazards. A honey oil lab operating in the Parkwood area of Madera exploded on Saturday, July 23, destroying the house it was run out of and displacing the 18 residents who lived there, according to the Madera Tribune.
Representatives for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department question Aguillon’s accusations.
“Ten years ago, we used to get meth labs all the time, but we’re just not seeing them anymore,” the department’s Public Information Officer Commander, Bill Ward, told the Asian Journal. “Something about that [accusation] doesn’t seem right.”
He adds that deputies have no record of interviewing any of the destroyed home’s occupants.
On Thursday, August 18, Aguillon said she didn’t know the name of the deputy she accuses of misconduct.
At the time she spoke to the Asian Journal, she had not yet filed an official complaint with the department, but said she planned to go to the Madera County Sheriff’s headquarters to learn the deputy’s name and make her claims known. She added that the other occupants who fled Saturday’s house fire can corroborate her version of events.
The Aguillons’ misfortune transpires amidst a destructive fire season that has razed homes and evacuated families throughout the state of California. (Eric Anthony Licas / AJPress)