Fresno fire investigators seeking person of interest in blaze where captain fell through roof

The Fresno Fire Department is seeking a person of interest in connection with the Sunday blaze in which Fire Capt. Pete Dern was critically injured, investigator Don MacAlpine said Tuesday.

“We are trying to locate and talk with him,” MacAlpine said of the man, whom he did not name. MacAlpine said he didn’t know whether the man was avoiding investigators or was just off the grid and not aware he was being sought.

The fire erupted early Sunday afternoon at the house on Cortland Avenue just west of Manchester Shopping Center in central Fresno. Dern was hurt when he fell through the roof while opening ventilation holes. He sustained inhalation injures and second- and third-degree burns to about 65% of his body.

MacAlpine said investigators are trying to talk to residents of the home as they build a timeline of events. Investigators are also checking to see whether there was a problem with the construction of the home that caused the roof to give way in such a catastrophic manner.

The home was described by neighbors as some type of boarding house — one with which Fresno police are familiar. Lt. Joe Gomez said officers went to the house more than a dozen times in March alone, including two calls the day of the fire. The calls included disturbances and mental health issues.

Sarah Gonzales, who lives in the neighborhood, noted the police activity involving the home, which she described as a “halfway house.”

“It seems as though this neighborhood has gone down,” she said. “We’ve been struggling with this house.”

Gonzales said she was glad to see Fire Engine No. 5 arrive Sunday, because it was the number of an engine her grandfather once worked on: “It has a special place in my heart.”