Five dead in fire at abandoned east-central Fresno house

Five people died early Sunday when a boarded-up home in east-central Fresno erupted in flames in one of the deadliest Fresno fires in recent memory.

A sixth person, who was taken to Community Regional Medical Center, was reported to be in critical condition.

The fire at 1441 N. Archie Ave., near McKinley and Cedar avenues, was reported at 6:44 a.m. Responding fire crews were met by flames and thick smoke from the abandoned house, fire Battalion Chief Lawrence French said.

French said a neighbor told police that he heard people screaming and pounding against a window for help.

Firefighters pulled six people from the house in an effort to save them, French said.

Four victims were declared dead at the scene by emergency medical personnel. Two others were transported to Community Regional Medical Center, where one person died.

The Fresno County Coroner’s Office identified three of the victims Sunday afternoon: Irene Hinojos, 36, and Monique Amaral, 28, both of whom died at the scene. Anthony Zavala, 37, died at Community Regional Medical Center.

On Monday, the final two victims were identified: Patricia Zambrano, 34, and William Morales, 56.

Juan Castillo Jr., who was Zavala’s cousin and considered Hinojos like a sister, learned of the fire from Zavala’s uncle.

“All I kept telling him was ‘shut up’ because I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to hear it,” Castillo said.

Castillo said the victims did have homes, but sought the shelter of abandoned buildings like the one on Archie Avenue to deal with personal issues and to keep warm.

“They do have homes. Some of us just have hard times and don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “I just pray for the families and the victims and everybody on the streets. They don’t need to be out here.”

Sunday’s fire was the fourth fatal fire of 2015 and the only one this year in which more than one victim died, fire officials said.

Fresno fire spokesman Pete Martinez, who has been with the department for 10 years, said he could not recall a fire with this many fatalities.

The house had been vacant for many years and had been secured with boarded-up windows and doors, Martinez said.

One of the boarded-up windows near the living room apparently had been pried open by people who were squatting, he said.

That was the only way for the occupants to enter or exit the house and also was where the fire was the most intense, Martinez said. Firefighters found the six victims in one of the bedrooms where it appeared they were trying to smash their way out.

The cause of death has not been determined, but Martinez said it looked like the victims may have suffered from smoke inhalation.

Fresno police detectives were assisting fire investigators to determine the cause of the fire. Martinez said they will be looking for witnesses and video footage, including any nearby security footage.

Martinez said that a total of 30 fire personnel responded to the fire and rescue.

Crews responding to fires at vacant buildings in Fresno try to quickly attack the flames as they’re aware that people could be inside them, Martinez said.

“Which is why we are still somewhat aggressive in the way we approach what would otherwise be just a vacant home,” Martinez said.

Paul Schlesinger: 559-441-6659, @PaulSch_Photog