Friday, May 23, 2008

One Killed In Turlock Crash, Flames Create Chaos

TURLOCK -- A fatal van accident and a grass fire shut down Highway 99 for more than four hours Thursday, leaving hundreds of commuters stranded and emergency responders running between police, fire and medical calls into the early evening.

The chaos typified events across Stanislaus County, where 200 firefighters battled a wind-swept 100-acre wildfire near Knights Ferry, which closed a portion of Highway 108-120 for four hours, and emergency crews tended to about 25 other fires reported in the county.

On Highway 99, just after 2 p.m., a van crashed into a guardrail in the northbound lane near the Keyes Road exit. About a mile south, and minutes before, a grass fire started, threatening homes and businesses in and around the Monte Vista Crossings shopping area.

The fire destroyed many of the 30 vacant mobile homes in a storage yard on Taylor Road. About 100 people were evacuated from nearby businesses because of the flames, including the Best Western Orchard Inn on Taylor Road, El Rosal restaurant at Monte Vista Crossings shopping center and Suburban Propane on Golden State Boulevard.

While CHP and Turlock police tended to the van and a dozen fire agencies from across the county wrestled with the flames, ambulances responded to a domino effect of medical calls including:

· A woman, nine months pregnant, who went into labor in her car in the stalled southbound lane of Highway 99.

· An infant, also in a car on the highway, running a "severe fever," according to police.

· Several people who called 911 with smoke inhalation and other fire-related injuries.

· A woman who had a seizure in the Monte Vista Crossings area.

"Everything fell apart all at once," said CHP spokesman Tom Killian.

Witnesses told the CHP the van, which was carrying "eight or nine" people, was traveling northbound in the middle lane on Highway 99 "at a high rate of speed, 80 to 90 miles per hour," CHP officer Thomas Gowin said.

It moved to the left lane just as, according to a witness, an armored truck moved from the middle to left-hand lane, causing the van driver to slam on the brakes and sending the vehicle into a spin and into a guardrail, Gowin said.

Three people were ejected, and a woman died on the scene. Another was seriously injured and flown by helicopter to Memorial Medical Center. The California Highway Patrol did not release the names of the victims or occupants, all from San Leandro.

The fire started north of Taylor Road. It was bordered to the south at Monte Vista Crossings, west to the railroad tracks west of Highway 99, and east to the apartment complex next to Pitman High School.

A dozen agencies, led by Turlock City Fire, brought it under control about 5:30 p.m. Still, by 6:30, as firefighters were leaving the storage yard, rows and rows of mobile homes still were smoking, burned down to the blocks.

Toby Helton and Joseph Culwell were in their house, which sits in the middle of the storage yard, when they saw the flames.

"You couldn't even see outside," Helton said. "It was all smoke."

Flames also threatened Suburban Propane on Golden State Boulevard, along with several other businesses.

"The sales team watched it burn until it got close, then locked the doors and ran," said Randy Woods, owner of Woods Furniture. The flames came within feet of his Taylor Road store.

At one point, Highway 99 was closed from the Keyes Road exit to the West Main Street exit. More than 60 public safety workers, city workers and Caltrans employees mobilized to keep cars off that four miles of highway.

Some commuters spent upward of three hours in their vehicles, officials said. A caller to The Bee who said she got on the freeway in Modesto at 4:25 p.m. was inching southbound at Keyes more than two hours later.

Side streets in central Turlock were clogged as drivers fled Highway 99 and the fire's smoke. Drivers attempted to get to Modesto and back on Highway 99 by weaving through Santa Fe Avenue, Hatch Road or Yosemite Boulevard, driving through Empire and Hughson.

Wind wreaks havoc

The wind was a major factor in dozens of other grassfires throughout the region Thursday. Houk said recent dry weather and low humidity were the other factors that allowed the fires to get out of control Thursday.

In response to a series of grass fires Thursday morning, county officials formed a quick response task force of three fire engines, said deputy Royjindar Singh, an Office of Emergency Services spokesman.

The task force was centrally stationed in the Modesto area to respond quickly to any vegetation fire in the county with three engines. Singh said the task force was handling a fire in Ceres before it was deployed to the Knights Ferry blaze.

He said the task force was busy near Knights Ferry when the fire started near Turlock's Taylor Road.

Houk said the first fire engine assigned to tackle the blaze near Turlock was from a fire agency in Patterson, because everyone else was handling response calls.

"There were about three to four major incidents all around the same time," Houk said.

Gusts were recorded as high as 39 mph in Modesto. Gusts were recorded as high as 39 mph in Modesto.

Those winds helped drive a 20-acre grass fire at Mitchell Road and Highway 99. Ceres fire Battalion Chief Bryan Hunt said the call came in about 11 a.m. and crews left the scene about 1:45 p.m.

"The wind took a little road-side grass fire that usually would take one engine to handle and turned it into an eight- engine, two-hour grass fire," Hunt said.

Source:Modesto Bee News

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