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Investigators probe homeless link to suspicious Newcastle house fire

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Investigators are looking into the possibility that a homeless squatter may have started a fire that heavily damaged an unoccupied Newcastle house overnight Thursday. Neighbors said Friday that the house, located on Highway 193 near the Newcastle commercial area, had been empty for at least six months after the former owners lost their home to foreclosure. Newcastle Fire District Chief Jay Love said the fire is being treated as suspicious and a team of Placer County Sheriff’s and fire investigators was attempting to determine its cause. “We’re going to take a look to find out to make sure there’s not a firebug running around,” Love said. Love said investigators were following up leads from neighbors indicating the 8500-block Highway 193 house had transient visitors who may have been staying there. Thursday night’s fire was a stubborn one. Firefighters dealt with three layers of roofing, including a sheet-steel layer that made venting the blaze difficult, Love said. In all, about 20 firefighters from area departments worked to put the fire out by about 3 a.m. The narrow, two-lane highway near the house was shut down from about 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. The fire was contained to the two-story house and an open-garage outbuilding. Several tall oaks were singed but didn’t catch fire. “It was scary,” said neighbor Maryanne Stafford. Stafford said that an aunt who lives nearby reported hearing something that sounded like firecrackers going off before the house erupted in flames. “I’ve seen cars parked there and it’s possible that someone was staying there,” Stafford said. “The railroad tracks and the canal are just above the house. Who knows? But it has been abandoned.” Darryl Porter, another neighbor, said he has seen a small, blue car parked at the house in plain view over the past month. “But no people,” Porter said. Porter said he even knocked on the door once to see if anyone would answer but no one did. “There are homeless people everywhere and they need a place to stay,” Porter said. “Maybe someone didn’t like the dark and lit a candle.” Love said that a transient lighting a fire accidentally was one of many possibilities investigators will be looking into. While about a third of the house was burned down to a charred frame, the rest of the building sustained enough water and smoke damage to make it a teardown, the chief said. Love said the house is now owned by a Texas bank. Stafford said the house had been previously owned for several decades by a couple who had been foreclosed on and had to leave their home. She said that even at under $200,000, including seven acres, the house had remained unsold.