A mother and her children narrowly escaped their burning apartment Monday after they were briefly trapped behind a chain-link fence outside their home. Their building may not have been zoned for residential use, nor was the vacant lower section properly maintained to keep out the squatters who likely started the blaze.
Roseanna Montoya, 39, and her three children lived at 815 E. Belmont Ave., but that was not obvious to passersby. From Belmont, the building appeared to be a vacant warehouse or stores located between a thrift store and the Dry Creek Canal. The windows were boarded up. The white paint was chipping off.
But a close look from west of the canal reveals two apartment units on the second story of the back half of the building. Identical staircases connect two front doors with a shared, fenced-in side yard. The yard tapers down into a narrow walkway between the building and the fence. This dead-ends at a gate, which was secured Monday afternoon with a padlock.
It was here – sandwiched between a burning building and the fence – that Montoya and two of her children, 9-year-old Jonathan Curet and 14-year-old Cameron Curet, were trapped. She has a key, but in her haste to get her children out of the burning building, she forgot it.
“I started screaming for my neighbor,” Montoya said. “But I guess because his house wasn’t the one burning, he took his time.”
Concerned onlookers attempted to break through the fence and rescue the family, but they were not successful. Luckily, their neighbor was home at the time and opened the gate. Had he not been, Montoya could have been trapped in the bizarre side/front yard.
Montoya’s third child, 16-year-old Andrew Curet, was not home when the fire started. He had stayed late after his first day of school.
Montoya said she immediately knew the cause of the fire that burned practically everything she owned. Squatters have been hanging out in the vacant bottom floor, she said, and are always lighting small fires “to barbecue or something.”
“I was just saying those guys were going to burn the place down one day,” Montoya said. “And then 30 seconds later my daughter ran in screaming ‘Mom, we have to get out!’ ”
She may have been right.
Fresno Fire Department spokesman Hector Vasquez said Tuesday that the fire was ruled an accident. Someone “carelessly discarded a used cigarette, igniting bedding material” on the bottom floor.
In all, six people in the apartments were displaced: Montoya’s family and her two neighbors. It’s unknown how many people were squatting in the first floor.
I started screaming for my neighbor.
Roseanna Montoya, a Fresno mother who escaped her burning apartment with her children
The American Red Cross Central California helped by providing clothing and replacing necessary medications lost in the blaze, spokeswoman Jessica Piffero said. Montoya and her neighbors also were given preloaded debit cards to help replace essential items, and toiletry kits.
Montoya could not be reached through the Red Cross on Tuesday.
Circumstance may have averted a crisis Monday, but the Montoyas probably should not have been living at 815 E. Belmont in the first place.
According to the Fresno County Assessor’s Office, the property is listed as a 2,320-square-foot, one-story building. It was built in 1925 and was valued at about $70,000. Property records name Reds Family Limited Partnership as the owner.
The California Secretary of State’s Office lists Renee Funk Prueitt as the primary agent and includes an address in Jamul in San Diego County. Prueitt is originally from Fresno. She did not respond to a voicemail message left on her phone Tuesday.
On Monday, Montoya said she had been in contact with her landlord, who had offered to get her family a hotel. The landlord was aware of the fire, Montoya said.
Fresno fire authorities ruled the blaze an accident – a discarded cigarette ignited bedding.
Reds appears to own at least a half-dozen low-income houses in Fresno.
The Belmont property’s relationship with the city of Fresno is a bit more cloudy.
Websites like PropertyShark say the property is zoned for heavy commercial use, which would not allow for residential or mixed use without a special permit. City spokesman Mark Standriff said the only permit on file was for a gas meter clearance in 2007. A Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokeswoman said the company’s records indicate there were three customers in the building. Montoya and her neighbor are believed to be two of the customers; the third wasn’t evident Tuesday.
Fresno’s substandard housing, chronicled in The Bee’s four-month investigation, “Living in Misery,” has been a challenge to City Hall. Add 815 E. Belmont to the list of addresses apparently flying under the radar.
Standriff said that city code enforcement manager Del Estabrooke visited the building on Tuesday. Apparently, people have been living there for years. Standriff said city officials are not sure if the apartment units had individual plumbing or somehow shared commercial lines. It is also not sure what the precise zoning was for that building or if it was in violation of any city ordinances.
The city recently outlawed the use of plywood to cover windows of vacant homes in favor of clear, hard sheets of polycarbonate resin, but Standriff said those rules only apply to homes – not commercial buildings. Whether the owner was required to use the new covering was unknown.
The city hopes to have more answers on Wednesday, Standriff said.