Fire displaces Mendocino Coast couple, firefighter injured

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A fire believed to have started with a wood-burning stove destroyed a house in the Mendocino coast community of Caspar late Friday night, displacing a man and a woman who lived there and likely killing two kittens that could not be found in the escape, officials and neighbors said.

The couple were aided by two neighbors who came to their rescue before the pair realized how serious the blaze in their two-story house had become.

The woman, who relies on a wheelchair, was still in the house as flames engulfed the top floor and her partner searched frantically for the kittens, having let the two parent cats out already, the neighbors said.

“It was a hairy situation,” said Ritchie Goswell. “But everything turned out OK.”

The fire broke out shortly before 11 p.m. Friday, likely because of flammable materials left too close to the wood stove or because of something that caught fire in the chimney, Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department personnel said Saturday. The flames spread quickly within the South Caspar Drive structure, which was engulfed in flames by the time crews got to the scene.

In the meantime, Marni Doyle Johnson, a neighbor, went out behind her house to turn off her Christmas lights and saw a red glow in the sky. She and her husband were displaced by the 2015 Valley fire in Lake County, “so we’re a little sensitive about fire,” she said.

She called 911 and started driving toward the glow, honking her horn and yelling at neighbors to get their garden hoses primed. When she saw Goswell running in the street, she picked him up and drove him the rest of the way to the scene.

Goswell, 73, has been undergoing cancer treatment for the past eight months and said he’s lost about 70 pounds. “But I still know my strength,” he said, so he didn’t hesitate about running into a burning house.

Johnson, 48, was a firefighter in Marin County about 20 years ago, but back then “I had fire equipment on, safety gear, a hose and a captain telling me what to do — not just running in and grabbing someone in a fully engulfed house.”

But the female occupant, whose full name wasn’t known by the neighbors, did not want to leave, and her partner was desperate to find the kittens before leaving, Goswell and Johnson said.

They were able eventually to part carry, part drag her out, and help her partner escape before the house crashed in on itself, Goswell said.

He hopes to do some fundraising to help the couple out.

“I feel so bad for them,” Johnson said, “because they of course lost everything. It was a scary situation.”

The fire drew 16 volunteer Mendocino firefighters with three engines, two water tenders and a rescue truck, in addition to three Cal Fire engines. Water tenders from fire agencies in Albion and Fort Bragg also helped shuttle water to the scene, Mendocino Fire engineer and spokeswoman officer Sally Swan said.

The structure was a total loss, and a local Red Cross volunteer was called to assist the displaced couple with lodging, Swan said.

A firefighter broke his arm in the effort to control the flames and overhaul the scene to prevent reignition of the fire, officials said. Swan declined to release the firefighter’s name or the name of the house’s occupants.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or

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