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  • Hector Amezcua /

    John Barsdale, an investigator with Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, searches for a cause of the Rancho Cordova house fire Sunday that killed two people. Friends of the home's owners say they kept pet birds, and cages can be seen at left above.

  • Skyla Rivera, 14, weeps recalling an attempt with her father to save a fire victim. The inferno blew out a front window that a woman tried unsuccessfully to escape through.

Rancho Cordova house fire kills 2

Published: Monday, May. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 9:00 am

The fire burned out the front window of the house across the street, and Skyla Rivera and her dad ran over in the 4:06 a.m. darkness Sunday to see if there was anything they could do to save the lives of Arlene and Leon Johnson.

"And there's like fire everywhere and there's smoke everywhere," the 14-year-old Rancho Cordova girl said. "The lady was halfway out the window screaming for us to get her out. The dogs were yelping. There were pops everywhere and glass breaking. There's so much fire everywhere.

"My dad and I, we tried to get the lady out and we weren't able to get her out and she kept yelling for us to get her out," Rivera continued. "And the last thing she said before she died was, 'No matter what you do, get us out,' and we weren't able to."

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department officials did not have a cause for the blaze that destroyed much of the Johnsons' residence in the 10500 block of Georgetown Drive. Although there was no official identification given on the bodies of the two people who were found inside, members of the Capitol City Bird Society identified the pair as longtime member Arlene Johnson and her husband, Leon.

Arson investigator John Barsdale stepped with black knee-high rubber boots through the fire wreckage Sunday in search of the cause of the blaze. He said the deployment of an arson investigator is routine for fatal fires.

"Preliminarily," Barsdale said, there was nothing to suggest that the fire was intentionally set. "But things can change."

Throughout the day Sunday, longtime friends of the Johnsons who knew Arlene as a tireless volunteer, director and honored member of the Capitol City Bird Society, a seamstress and dollmaker, a caregiver for the sick and dying – they all gathered at the charred frontage of the house, and they mourned.

"Loving, caring and responsible – if there were any three words I could use to describe her, those would be the ones," said Ella Galik, a past president of the bird society who fought tears while remembering the woman in her 70s she described as "my best friend."

Besides serving as a director of the 75-member bird society, Arlene Johnson took charge of providing refreshments at all of its meetings. As the community education chairwoman, she visited schools and talked about the care and handling of birds. She even paid such visits to juvenile hall.

She was in charge of the society's "adopt a bird" program. She gave people rides to doctor's visits. She picked up her friends' kids at school and got them home safely. She was honored in 2004 with the society's Charlie Shotz Memorial Award, emblematic of the club member "who demonstrates tremendous service to CCBS as well as the bird world as a whole."

"She was really well loved and well known," said Rosiebird Gipson, the current president of the Capitol City Bird Society.

Anybody who visited the bird society's exhibit at the State Fair in recent years probably met Arlene Johnson. She was the face of the organization at the fair, along with her macaw named Corky that used to wave to the crowd. She would also bring along Nacho, a favored Mexican red-headed Amazon parrot.

Fire Department officials said the blaze killed 10 of Arlene Johnson's birds, as well as four dogs and three cats.

Her friends feared the toll on the birds ran much higher. In the wreckage, there were three large bird cages in the front room that was heavily damaged as well as several more cages towards the rear of the house.

"Most of her collection died," Gipson said. "She had 22 cages. Some of them were full of birds. I'm thinking maybe 50 birds passed away. And she was feeding babies. People boarded their birds with her."

Don Barnett, an across-the-street neighbor, described Arlene and Leon Johnson as "nice people." He remembered once when two baby doves fell out of his palm tree and he was able to save one of them from his cat. He took the survivor to Arlene.

"That lady took that little baby dove, and it was a little while later, I asked her, 'What happened to the little baby dove?' And she said, 'Oh, it grew up and flew away. We took care of it and raised it.' That's what I know about them."

Barnett said he saw Arlene Johnson drive up to her house Saturday evening and heard her toot the horn. Then Barnett saw Leon Johnson come out and help her take the groceries inside.

"The last thing I saw was them going into the house with the groceries," Barnett said.

Ella Galik said she didn't know Leon Johnson well, only that he was retired, possibly from the U.S. Postal Service. She said she knows the couple have a number of grown children as well as a son who died.

A badly fire-damaged Ford Focus parked in the Johnsons' driveway had a window sticker that read, "My Grandson is in the Air Force." To the right of the Ford, a San Francisco 49er license plate holder was attached to a Dodge 4x4 that sustained a burned left-front tire. On the other side of the truck was a camper shell.

Across the street, Skyla Rivera found that after seeing the fire and hearing the pleas of a dying woman, there was no such thing Sunday as sleep.

"I always kept feeling the lady was … like a ghost or something, and whenever I closed my eyes I kept seeing the fire," the teenager said in a cracking voice. "I felt like I should have done something more."

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo. The Bee's Maury Macht contributed to this story.

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