Mendocino coast house fire kills sisters, 9 and 14
The fire began sometime after midnight Tuesday in the nearly 150-year-old, two-story Manchester home along the Mendocino County coast where the family of five lived.
Smoke alarms woke the father about 1:40 a.m. The house was on fire and filling with smoke. He, his wife and son - all sleeping upstairs - escaped through an upstairs window. Once outside, they realized their daughters, ages 9 and 14, were missing.
By then, the house was engulfed, a four-alarm fire that lit up the coastal bluff at the far end of Biaggi Lane off Highway 1 on a Stornetta dairy ranch.
“It was futile for them to attempt to get to the ground level where the girls were sleeping,” said Mendocino County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Van Patten.
For hours Tuesday, long after the fire was out and only the 2,500-square-foot home's chimney remained standing, investigators combed through the blackened debris searching for the girls' bodies and a possible cause. The bodies were located in the afternoon.
Mendocino County sheriff's officials have not released the names of the victims, and won't until dental comparisons are made, Van Patten said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The fire included at least six primarily volunteer firefighting agencies and Cal Fire, representing a coastal stretch measuring about 60 miles from Elk south to Timber Cove in Sonoma County.
The home, originally constructed in 1870 according to county records, sat among barns and other structures on a Stornetta dairy ranch officially owned by Windy Hollow Partnership and managed by Lance Stornetta. The residents, identified as the Cazares family, were believed to be longtime ranch employees, according to officials. Lance Stornetta could not be reached for comment.
A woman answering the phone at the Stornetta residence declined comment.
Manchester is a tiny community of a couple hundred residents, a few businesses, a post office, firehouse and school. It's located on Highway 1, 4 miles north of Point Arena.
Tuesday morning, locals discussed how to help the family, including cooking meals and mounting a clothes drive, according to an employee at S&B Market on Highway 1.
“Everybody is very concerned and trying to give as much support as they can,” said the employee, who declined to give his name.
The store is accepting food, clothing and goods for the family, said Frances Anderson, assistant director of the Action Network in Gualala. The group was collecting donated food and meals from local restaurants to take to the family Tuesday afternoon.
Anderson said a GoFundMe account - under the name “Cazares Family Fund” - had been launched by a community member. By Tuesday night, it had raised nearly $8,000 of a $50,000 goal.
“The community here is wonderful,” Anderson said of the support.
Anderson said the girls attended Manchester Elementary School, a K-8 campus with about 45 students.
School Principal Cynthia Gonzalez said Tuesday she'd not been officially notified of the deaths but word had spread and she had counselors, including chaplains from local fire departments and a Catholic priest, available at the school for students.
It was unclear where the family was staying after losing their home, but South Coast Fire Protection Chief Greg Warner, who responded to the fire, said he was sure they were being taken care of, likely by the Stornetta family.
Redwood Coast Fire Chief Mike Suddith, who helped run the firefight and worked on the recovery effort, said the fire was an emotional one for firefighters, who knew from the start there likely were children inside who didn't make it.
Redwood Coast volunteers were first to the fire and found the home ablaze. One engine crew tried to get inside but had to quickly exit as the roof began to collapse, Suddith said.
Tuesday's investigation included fire officials, Mendocino County sheriff's detectives and the State Fire Marshal's office.
In addition to Redwood Coast volunteers, also responding were South Coast, North Coast, Elk, Sea Ranch, Timber Cove and Cal Fire firefighters, and an ambulance from the Coast Life Support District.
Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this story. Reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@rossmannreport. Reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.