Semi-truck blamed for four fires along Hwy. 156

One fire ignited fences behind San Juan Bautista homes, causing significant damage to one

Eight engines from the Hollister Fire Department, along with aircraft from CalFire, responded to four fires along Highway 156 Monday near San Juan Bautista. One grass fire ignited fences behind homes on Franklin Circle, causing one structure to catch fire.

California Highway Patrol received reports just before 2:45 p.m. about three fires on the side of 156; a fourth was reported shortly after. Westbound 156 traffic was reduced to one lane as the fires spread.

“There were four fires and this was one of the bigger one,” said Bill Garringer, Hollister’s interim fire chief, at the scene of the house fire. “Further up 156, there were two other smaller fires and one large one that Cal Fire handled with aircraft and staffing. This one was handled by Hollister Fire and a strike team from Monterey County.”

Garringer said all four fires were started by the same source: a catalytic converter on a semi-truck.

“At every fire, the arson investigators found chunks of catalytic converter metal,” he said. “It’s an accidental fire. It started in the weeds next to the road and in this case it got into a lot of the fences and one structure fire, which was put out pretty quickly.”

Leo Alvarez, division chief for the Hollister Fire Department, said the house that caught fire had major damage. “We were able to save the two adjoining structures. The residents got out safely; one had slight smoke inhalation,” he said.

CalFire responded to multiple roadside fires at 2:50 p.m., at the intersection of 101 and 156, said Johathan Pangburn, information officer for CalFire. "We responded with air elements of CalFire and were able to quickly contain all the areas that were on fire within an hour," he said. "The fixed-wing air attack resouces came from Hollister. We also sent a helicopter out of Bear Valley that dropped water."

Anthony Ponce, who lives a few houses away from the damaged house on Franklin Circle, said he saw the fire as it approached the home. “It started burning under the eaves and into the attic,” he said.

According to a John Candelaria posting on a San Juan Bautista community Facebook page: "Sadly, there was a home that very well may not be salvageable. The Fire Crew did put in a valiant effort and were able to limit damage. Unfortunately, response time was poor due to the fact that they had to respond from Hollister (30 minutes). Most of the old (ex) volunteer team arrived immediately with garden hoses and shovels and did their best. I'm proud of my SJB community!"

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]