The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office has arrested and charged two 16-year-old boys on suspicion of homicide and arson in the death of a person whose body was found Tuesday morning inside a residence destroyed by fire in the Big Hill area of Columbia.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrea Benson said on Wednesday the name of the victim will be released after an autopsy is completed in the coming days and next of kin is notified.
The identities of the suspects have not been released because they are juveniles.
Benson said the body was found shortly after deputies and firefighters arrived at the residence on Calle Quartz Road near Adelleana Lane.
Sheriff’s dispatchers received 40 calls about the fire between 5:58 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., mostly from the Columbia area.
One caller on Rancho Castanea Road in Columbia reported hearing “the house exploding” at 6:07 a.m. Another on Adelleana Lane reported at 6:09 a.m. that someone was inside the residence.
Several people have been interviewed regarding the incident.
Benson said the two juvenile suspects were transported to the Sheriff’s Investigations Office and arrested after being interviewed by detectives at about 5 p.m. Tuesday, but where they came from before that is not being released.
Both suspects were transported to the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility after their arrests.
Kent Cunningham, a Cal Fire battalion chief in the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said he was incident commander and arrived at the fire shortly after 6:20 a.m.
Cunningham said he was driving on Phoenix Lake Road when the fire was first reported. He saw a plume of black smoke going straight up in the sky when he looked toward the Big Hill area.
“I immediately knew it was a confirmed fire,” he said.
Four Cal Fire engines and engines from the Sonora Fire Department, Columbia Fire Protection District, and Tuolumne County Fire Department responded to the scene, Cunningham said.
The residence was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, but Cunningham said it appeared to be a single-wide trailer with some sort of attached addition.
“The destruction was so bad it was really hard to tell what we were dealing with, other than it was a structure and some type of mobile home,” he said.
Cunningham said there was a long, steep downhill driveway leading to the residence off Big Hill Road that fire apparatus had to maneuver, but they didn’t have any access issues.
Sheriff’s deputies arrived about the same time as firefighters, Cunningham said.
The fire had also spread from the structure to some surrounding vegetation, which included highly combustible manzanita brush and grass oak woodland.
Cunningham said the fires to the residence and vegetation were both fully contained shortly before 7 a.m. after burning slightly less than an acre.
“I had more resources coming, dozers and hand crews, but I cancelled them so they could go back to their stations and continue to provide coverage for the rest of the county,” he said.
There were reports that people near Hatler Mill were evacuated, but Cunningham said he didn’t recall any evacuations being ordered.
Cunningham said he spoke with several residents who left the area when they saw the smoke.
“We appreciate that,” he said.
The response was an example of good collaboration between the various fire agencies and Sheriff’s Office, Cunningham added, which prevented the fire from spreading to other homes in the area.
“It could have been way worse, but everybody did a great job,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.