A 27-year-old mother frantically tried to save her two small children when an errant barbecue fire quickly spread out of her control and into the family’s camping trailer, quickly engulfing the surrounding property on Panoche Road June 4, according to the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office’s initial investigation.
Their burned bodies were found by firefighters who responded to the Panoche fire, which ultimately burned about 64 acres of vegetation, according to authorities. Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Taylor said the mother as well as her 3-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter died in the blaze north of San Benito. The unincorporated town of San Benito is about 30 miles southeast of Hollister, and just on the east side of Pinnacles National Park.
The mother’s boyfriend—the father of the infant who died in the fire—had been out shopping for supplies and was returning to the camping trailer at the time of the deaths, Taylor added.
“We’re pretty confident he was about 40 minutes away from the residence when the fire started,” Taylor said. He stressed that sheriff’s staff “are not fire investigators,” and the official cause of the fire and other circumstances surrounding the incident are being investigated by CalFire. That investigation is ongoing.
“Our role in this matter is to determine cause of death, and to determine if a criminal act may have occurred that lead to that death,” Taylor wrote in a June 8 press release updating the public about the incident. As of now, law enforcement officials do not think the fire or deaths resulted from any criminal activity.
The sheriff’s office, also acting as the county coroner’s office, is awaiting the medical examiner’s confirmation of the victims’ identities before releasing their names.
The family was living on the property, where they had moved from Gilroy in recent weeks, Taylor added.
Based on statements from neighbors and the woman’s boyfriend, they had been living in two camping trailers on the private property for about one month, Taylor said. They were renting the space where the trailers were parked from the property owner. The other trailer did not burn.
Although CalFire officials are in charge of investigating and determining the cause of the Panoche fire, sheriff’s deputies think they have pieced together some of the events leading up to the deaths from witness statements and the firefighters’ initial assessment.
Taylor said shortly after CalFire discovered the bodies and called the sheriff’s office about 10:30pm June 4, the firefighters pointed out a “tipped-over” Weber style barbecue grill next to the burned camping trailer. “They said that was the hottest area,” Taylor said, suggesting that’s where the blaze started.
A neighbor told deputies that just before the fire started, they saw the woman “frantically” walking around the trailer, then heard her screaming moments later, Taylor said. Her boyfriend later told authorities that she called him on his cell phone while he was out shopping, and told him there was a fire in the trailer.
“We believe she tried to put the fire out, the trailer caught on fire, she went inside to try to save the kids, and they all got trapped in there,” Taylor said.
The woman’s boyfriend also told investigators that he had been cooking on the outdoor barbecue grill earlier that day. The fire possibly started by accident when he set a piece of wood on the ground that he had used to stoke the fire, or the hot grill had somehow tipped over, Taylor said.
“At this point, until we get the investigation back from CalFire, we’re not looking at any type of foul play,” Taylor said. “It was just an accident, and we’re not looking at the boyfriend as a suspect…It looks like this was a tragedy and not a criminal act.”
Taylor added that sheriff’s investigators are “confident” of the boyfriend’s whereabouts at the time of the deaths. They have also confirmed that the woman called his cell as the fire was starting.