News - July 7, 2010

Fire chief: Cafe Silan was behind on maintenance

by Dave Boyce

Human nature was a culprit in the June 16 fire in Cafe Silan on Santa Cruz Avenue that put the 11-year-old restaurant out of business, hurried the permanent closure of the Book Rack next door, and closed Posh Bagel for at least six months, according to Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

"Arrogance, ignorance and complacency," Chief Schapelhouman told The Almanac. "A lot of the reason that we (firefighters) have our jobs is because of that. ... This stuff happens because of human nature. These are not bad people."

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the suspect is an improperly installed flue. Investigators are checking to see if a building permit had been issued and who had done the work, Chief Schapelhouman said.

Maintenance of Cafe Silan's fire-suppression systems "was an issue," the chief said. Management had been notified three times since September 2009 that the fire extinguisher was one year overdue and that the device over the oven that smothers fires with a blanket of fire-suppressing powder was two years overdue, the chief said.

"It's not unusual to see people deferring maintenance. It costs money," he said. "Mom-and-Pop-Shop-America is challenged by a lot of different things."

Cafe Silan's insurance had expired, but the building was insured, owner Nancy Couperus told The Almanac. The Book Rack had been on track to close within the year, and it may be six months or more before Posh Bagel is back in business, she said.

Installing fire sprinklers in the attic when Cafe Silan moved in had been "a huge expense," Ms. Couperus recalled, "but boy, I'll tell you, we are quite grateful we did it."

Retailers often dread seeing firefighters visit to inspect and "pre-target" a potential fire by considering how to fight it, the chief said.

Firefighters are occasionally asked why a fire extinguisher needs to be maintained, he said. "You may need to use it," is the answer. "You have a cooking facility and if you're cooking, you could have a fire."

Boxes may be blocking an exit corridor, and may go back to where they were when firefighters leave, the chief said. Thus the importance of education. "We know that if we come in heavy handed, it's not going to work," he said.

Will inspection schedules ramp up? Is there a list of suspects? "I'm worried about every place," the chief said. "Every business that goes out of business isn't paying revenue into the system. We're not immune from that. Inspectors cannot keep up with the workload they have. It's a difficult situation and we're seeing more of it. People are just trying to get by."


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