A two-story house just south of Santa Rosa burned to the ground Thursday evening in a spectacular blaze that drew firefighters from a half-dozen agencies.
Electrical power and gas had been turned off to the house several days ago, according to the owner, James Quail, who said he has been trying unsuccessfully to evict the occupants.
"I believe somebody left a candle burning in one of the rooms," said Quail, 67, as he stood in the street outside the garage he lives in, close to the burned house.
"I'm pretty sure that's what started the fire," he said.
Occupants of the burned structure on Brooks Avenue near Ward Road said no one was inside at the time, but firefighters were still trying to make sure as they sorted through smoldering remains Thursday night.
"We're still trying to determine whether there was any loss of life," said Central Fire Authority Acting Battalion Chief Ron Busch. He said the cause remained under investigation.
Some adjacent structures on the one-acre property were also spared.
"Quick action by the crews kind of contained this thing," Busch said .
The three-alarm blaze, reported at 5:31 p.m. was in a rural neighborhood on the east side of Highway 101, north of East Todd Road.
More than two dozen fire engines and pieces of equipment were on hand from Santa Rosa, Rincon Valley, Rohnert Park, Rancho Adobe and Cal Fire.
Firefighters were challenged by the lack of hydrants in the unincorporated county area and had to rely on water tenders.
Power lines also were downed by the fire, another hazard that darkened the neighborhood.
One of the residents of the burned house said she had gone next door to a place that had electricity when the fire broke out.
"We were at my friend's house, getting ready to watch TV. Someone came in and said 'The house is on fire!' Everybody out!' said Nadine LaRose.
"By the time I looked, it was engulfed in flames," she said.
She was standing in the darkened street, holding her Chihuahua named Yeller, as she bemoaned the loss of her belongings.
"All my grandkids' presents were in there. I was wrapping them," she said of the gifts she planned to take to her daughter's place in Stewarts Point for Christmas.
"Her whole life's belongings were in that room — family pictures, clothes, jewelry, everything," said Philip Delacruz of Santa Rosa, who said LaRose is like a "mother" to him.
LaRose said she lived in the house with her sister, Brenda LaRose, and three other women.
Fire officials said the Red Cross will likely help with temporary housing for those made homeless.
Neighbors and Quail said the property draws more than its share of transients and squatters.
"I've had a rough time with all the people who come in here, more or less homeless, drug addicts and steal everything I own," Quail asserted.
He said he has not been able to afford the expense of evicting people.
Quail said he built the six-bedroom, three-bath house himself in the early 1980s.
"Every week, there are probably five or six people I've never seen before moving stuff in," said a neighbor who identified himself only as Dave.
Last year, he said he found a guy on parole in his trailer, sitting in a chair, and another time a man in the field "screaming at the top of his lungs."