News - June 23, 2010

Downtown fire closes three businesses

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by Dave Boyce

Fire investigators are looking at the area around an attic vent for a wood-burning pizza oven as the cause of a June 16 fire that has closed three retailers that shared a one-story building in downtown Menlo Park.

Santa Cruz Avenue retailers Cafe Silan, The Book Rack and Posh Bagels have been shut by order of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. Electric power to the building is off, he said.

The power outage also disrupted business at Kicks shoe store on Evelyn Street behind Posh Bagels, but Kicks may resume normal operations soon if its electric power can be isolated from the rest of the building, Chief Schapelhouman said.

The 911 call came in at 5:07 p.m., a second alarm went out at 5:13 and the fire was under control by 5:47, Chief Schapelhouman said. The fire drew about 45 firefighters from Menlo Park, Woodside and Redwood City.

The fire is believed to have started around Cafe Silan's vent/flue as it passed through the attic. The flue may have partially blocked a 12-inch-to-18-inch area from the effect of the sprinkler water and allowed the fire to get a bit bigger, the chief said. Further inspection is coming.

There were no injuries and about $100,000 in property damage, most of it from water cascading down and behind the walls of the three stores that front Santa Cruz Avenue, he said.

Fire inspectors removed part of the roof the next day and found that things could have been much worse. "We opened the patient, we took a look, we (found) a lot more problems that we thought," the chief said.

Hidden under the roof was a bowstring truss, an unreliable wooden-beam support structure that was out of sprinkler range and that the fire had "significantly damaged," he said.

A bow truss, as it's called, is "very unforgiving (and) can collapse without warning and collapse catastrophically," Chief Schapelhouman said. "This type of construction has killed a lot of firefighters over the years."

Sprinklers, he added, are instrumental in protecting firefighters by protecting the supporting structures. "That's my biggest fear, losing a firefighter," he said.

This building dates from the middle of the last century, the chief said, and so its age and the damaged truss will complicate its return to service. It will need new sheetrock on the walls and ceilings and new wiring.

The truss will also require an exam by a professional engineer, he said. It may need to be replaced, which would trigger building permits. The three retailers "will be closed for an extensive period of time," he said.

Although Kicks was not damaged, people came in off the street and from neighboring stores to help owner Lee Murphy move her goods out.

"When you see strangers helping each other, that reconstitutes your faith in humanity," the chief said.

A lot of water

The Santa Cruz Avenue businesses had puddles on the floors. In The Book Rack, firefighters had covered bookshelves with thick plastic sheeting to protect them from the cascading water. Initially, firefighters thought that the attic sprinklers had not shut off for unknown reasons.

The next day's inspection revealed that the sprinklers had shut off correctly but that the fire, in an area not sprinkled, had heated a copper water pipe and melted a solder joint, the chief said. The pipe separated and the water inside then poured out and went on to soak the first floors.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 29, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Was it really necessary to send 45 firefighters and in the range of 12 firetrucks to a kitchen fire? I watched the majority of the event from across the street and couldn't quite see why so many resources were needed. I'm sure there's more that goes into that decision to call in trucks from Belmont and Redwood city. I'd like to hear it.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm

The fire alarm came in from an occupied structure which dictates an automatic 3 engine response. When it was determined that the fire was in the attic space and could easily spread to adjacent structures then additional resources were called in. It is much better to have too many resources when lives and property are at stake than to find yourself with a fire that had spread via the attic to adjacent structures and not have the resources to quickly extinguish that fire.
Essentially what you are complaining about is that the firefighters first on the scene did a great job - but that was not guaranteed at the time that they called for backup. Would you have preferred they waited until the fire got out of control and spread to other structures?

I once remember making an emergency landing at Oakland Airport as the pilot of a single engine plane with only two people on board - I was very pleased to see three very big fire engines standing back until I landed safely.

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