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UKIAH — An arsonist suspected in a dozen fires may have set a midnight blaze at a Ukiah apartment building that destroyed several units and forced some families to jump to safety from second-story windows.

The fire would be the 13th in a string of suspected blazes since October near the South State Street Fircrest Apartments complex, Mendocino County Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Caudillo said.

The last suspicious fire was last Tuesday when a parked car apparently was set ablaze. One of the other fires also involved a car near the complex, Caudillo said.

A dog trained in arson detection Monday morning found an accelerant near the threshold of one of the apartments and in a foyer near a staircase leading to apartments.

Caudillo said Monday's fire was the first suspicious blaze inside the complex.

Ten other incidents with two of the destroyed apartments that faced the street also were linked to Monday's fire. Those fires did not take place within the complex but were set in nearby areas, Caudillo said.

Cotton balls dipped in accelerant found at several of the suspicious fires appear to tie the cases together, Caudillo said. In one case, the cotton balls had been found behind light switches.

Caudillo said authorities don't have a motive for the arson and detectives are looking at "people of interest" but there was no specific suspect.

"They all have similarities, and we believe one or more people to be involved," he said.

The fast-moving blaze destroyed about eight apartments and damaged four more with smoke, heat and water, Ukiah Fire Chief John Bartlett said.

An estimated 20 people were left homeless, and more than 40 people were evacuated.

Fire officials said the blaze spread quickly in part because the apartment building dated from the 1960s. The lack of a sprinkler system, a shared attic and a shingled roof also contributed to the blaze's rapid spread, officials said.

Residents began reporting the fire at 12:02 a.m. Monday, and the first firetruck arrived at 12:09 a.m. from a Ukiah Valley station two blocks away.

Firefighters found the flames already spreading to the second story and declared a second alarm, bringing help from other Ukiah, Hopland and Redwood Valley fire departments. Crews had the fire under control by about 1 a.m., said Ukiah Valley Capt. Syd Dearborn, who directed the firefighting.

Some residents said they woke up at about midnight to find the building on fire and their front doors blocked by the flames, Bartlett said. Air-conditioning units that collapsed into the apartments hampered rescue efforts.

Eleven adults and children escaped the flames through upstairs windows, he said.

They were taken to Ukiah Valley Medical Center for treatment of breathing issues and minor injuries, Bartlett said.

For the Jimenez family, they returned to the complex after being checked for smoke inhalation to find nothing left of their apartment, where they had loved for three years.

"It was very scary," Veronica Jimenez said of the family's escape.

Guillermo Jimenez said he woke first and told his wife, "Wake up there's a fire!"

He rousted their two young daughters and alerted two other people who were staying in the apartment.

They called neighbors, asking for a ladder to help them escape and they were able to climb down to safety.

Six people in the apartment next to the Jimenez's, including at least three children, all jumped out a window. They fled so quickly they didn't have time to put on shoes and all were barefoot.

Those neighbors were being treated at the hospital for injuries involving their falls, Veronica Jimenez said.

Bartlett said police officers caught some children or adults who had to drop out of their windows.

Neighbor Roger Bristow, whose house is on the same block as the complex, woke shortly after the fire started and saw people fleeing the apartment complex and moving their cars out of the way of the fire.

"The families and the kids who come by here are real familiar," he said. "It's so horrible."

The Red Cross opened a shelter inthe Ukiah High School gym, where 35 of the residents spent the rest of the night.

While classes went on Monday at the school, the fire refugees were offered breakfast and lunch by the school, with Red Cross officials planning to provide dinner.

Several residents who didn't speak English were getting translation help from two students.

The high school shelter remained open Monday night. Red Cross officials were working with school administrators and authorities to determine how long to keep the shelter open.

You can reach Staff Writers Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com and Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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