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2 dead in Mendocino County house fire, cause under investigation


POTTER VALLEY — The family lived across the street from the Potter Valley Fire Department. But that didn't stop flames from engulfing their double-wide trailer and burning it to the ground Saturday morning, killing two people.

Family members identified the victims as Earl McDaniels, a grandfather in his 80s, and his son Wes McDaniels, a developmentally disabled man in his 50s.

"He woke up with a smile on his face every day," said Wes McDaniels' sister, Dawn Tracy, when she returned to the destruction at her home Saturday evening. "He was just a good boy. He didn't deserve to die."

The fire started around 7:30a.m. Saturday morning at the home on Main Street of the rural Mendocino County town, located about 19 miles northeast of Ukiah.

Pete Nelson, a mechanic with Walsh Vineyard Management, was out with a crew picking grapes when they saw the thick plume of smoke and rushed to the scene.

What they found was chaos. Three barefoot children had found their way out of the house, but couldn't get out of the smoky, fenced-in yard because the gates were locked.

"The kids were outside, and the parents were trying to get the two people out of the trailer," Nelson said. "They were going to try to save their father, but it was too late. That place was engulfed."

Nelson's buddy helped lift a toddler over the fence, and they cut the lock with bolt cutters. Then the vineyard crew brought the three children across the street to the fire department until the volunteer crew showed up a few minutes later.

When firefighters arrived, the structure was fully engulfed in flames. The yard had been home to a double-wide mobile home with a garage and an attached building.

"It was too far gone to save the main structure," said Bill Pauli, chief of the Potter Valley Fire Department. "There were a lot of propane tanks. One of the main propane tanks blew, and we saw it coming, and heard it hissing, so everyone was way back. ... Really scary."

The first propane tank exploded about 20 minutes into the fire. Nine fire engines from Ukiah Valley, Ukiah City, Hopland, Redwood Valley, Cal Fire and Potter Valley Fire fought the blaze, which was brought under control by 10:30 a.m., Pauli said. Several blocks of Main Street in Potter Valley remained closed until about 4 p.m.

"The good news is that nobody else got hurt," Pauli said. "It's just an unfortunate situation."

Little could be made out in the yard strewn with charred debris. Cars and trucks were completely destroyed, their tires burnt away. The long metal support beams of the trailer were curved from the heat of the flames. A destroyed refrigerator was recognizable only because of its size, while a swingset remained unharmed.

The cause of the fire was not yet determined. "It's still under investigation," Pauli said. "I don't think we'll know because it was such a total burn-down."

Neighbors said Wes McDaniels had been trying to save his father, who was trapped in the burning home. McDaniels rode about on a tricycle, and was well-liked around town. When Dawn Tracy returned to the obliterated home Saturday evening and saw her brother's tricycle, she burst into tears and wheeled it away.

"My family needs help rebuilding our lives," said Tracy's sister, Teddi Lawson, who lives down the street. "She has pancreatitis. She needs Gatorade, foods, medication, blankets, house supplies. You see the devastation. Everything's gone. They have zero money right now."

A school teacher who taught one of the Tracy family's children showed up to offer support and check on the children, as Dawn Tracy and her husband, Ken, surveyed the remains of their home.

"It kind of made us sick to our stomach, because you think of your own kids," Nelson said. "I feel for the kids. I just hope the kids are alright. They lost everything they've got. They will need some kind of donations for clothes."