Update: Fire prompts four-alarm response

Fire may have started in offices above Calla boutique

Firefighters are at the scene a four-alarm fire at 1050 University Drive at Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown Menlo Park, across the street from Fremont Park.

The building where the fire occurred has several businesses, including Peet's Coffee & Tea and the Calla boutique. The fire appeared contained by mid-morning.

Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said the fire may have originated in the walls and floor of the offices on the second floor. The investigation is still in early stages, but the slow-burning fire could have crept up behind the drywall from the coffee shop or somewhere else in the building.

"It was going all night long," he said. "It's a very unique fire. It's all around you and you can't see it."

Chain saws and axes were used to break through the walls and floor to get to the source of the flames, he said. Firefighters worked in full gear in shifts of 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the intensity of the work, Chief Schapelhouman said.

Firefighters hacked out the roof to vent it. In what was left of the mail-services office, the joists and framing were blackened and charred, while drywall seemed none the worse for wear, at least to a reporter taken on a tour of the damage by Chief Schapelhouman.

"It's been a smoking, hot, difficult problem fire," he said.

By mid-morning, there were 47 firefighters and seven officers on the scene, 11 engines, three trucks and a breathing support unit. Firefighters from Belmont, Woodside and Palo Alto were among the companies represented.

One firefighter suffered a shoulder separation as he was cutting away boards to get to the source of the fire.

Peet's was evacuated and articles of clothing, many damaged by smoke, were removed from Calla. The clothing will probably be donated as it's too damaged to be sold, Calla owner Phil Bachler said.

Calla suffered extensive water damage. Chief Schapelhouman told a Peet's store manager that the use permits for the building will be "pulled." Peet's also has water damage, but not to the extent of Calla.

Calla may be closed for months, said Mr. Bachler, who bought the store seven months ago with his wife Tiger. A remodel was to have begun this week, he said. He is insured, he said.

"That was a clothing store. Now it's a catch basin for water," Chief Schapelhouman said, looking down through the floorboards into the standing water in the boutique as firefighters chopped away at the walls and floors of the second-story office. "We're doing a remodel, only we don't want to be doing it."

Firefighters bagged what clothes they could, Chief Schapelhouman said. "We don't enjoy doing damage, but we've got to find the fire."

Police had diverted traffic around the scene, but that ended about mid-day.

View map of location.

View photos.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 17, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Hopefully all the other merchants on Santa Cruz who occupy buildings built years ago will realize that investing in improved fire detection and suppression equipment may be a very prudent thing to do rather than suffer the extended loss of use that will occur from a fire like this one. Thanks to the Fire District this fire was confined to a single building - it could easily have taken out a whole block of businesses.

It is short sighted to do only what the very outmoded City of Menlo Park regulations require. If you are willing to pay for fire insurance then you should be willing to make a similar investment in fire prevention.

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Posted by Wendy
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Mar 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

[portion deleted] ... this fire brought out the best in those who fought it and are working to recover from it. The calm resolve and professionalism of a well-run fire scene was a thing of beauty to behold. The firefighters hand-carried breakables from the Calla boutique as if they were rescuing items from their own homes. They repeatedly inquired if they could fetch anything special from the ruined interiors, photos or other items we wanted. They were unfailingly kind and communicated clearly to those of us who needed information. Friends in the neighborhood helped carry items from was all in the spirit of compassion and helping others. All this warmed my heart, among many others.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 18, 2009 at 2:25 pm

[portion deleted]
These postings would much better serve the community if we went back to the subject of the original article - a very unfortunate, probably preventable fire which was superbly responded to by the Fire District and its mutual response partners. The object lesson is that we can and should prevent these types of fires in older buildings which do not have proper fire alarms and fire suppression systems.

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Posted by Thanks Peter
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Mar 18, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Peter, thank you very much for your service and work for our community. [Portion deleted. Several comments in this thread were removed because they were off-topic.]

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Linda Griffin
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 18, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I have a question for Peter Carpenter. I can see that better fire detection methods could have alerted the fire department sooner but what kind of fire suppression systems can get at fires that are contained behind walls and between floors?

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 18, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Very good question.

The origin of the fire appears, but it is not yet proven, to have been an equipment closet that would have had a sprinkler head in it if sprinklers were installed. The fire then apparently spread from that room through the electrical and ventilation chases to the inside of the walls and between the floor joists.

In my opinion, a sprinkler system would have extinguished the fire, and also sounded a proper fire alarm, before the fire had a chance to spread. Engine 6 would have responded in less than three minutes and the sprinkler system would have been shut off. There would have been zero damage to the rest of the structure and no smoke damage to the businesses in the building. When the building is repaired it will, ironically, be required to have fire sprinklers.

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