Update: Downtown fire forces out three businesses


Click on pictures to enlarge and see captions.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

This is an updated version of a story posted earlier.

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

This is definitely the city manager's fault or at least those darn union employees in the fire department, right?

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 17, 2010 at 11:29 am

It is important to note that the water damage was not caused by the sprinkler system. The fire was in the attic space and apparently caused by substandard venting for the pizza oven. The vent also was placed in such a way as to, improperly, shield the sensor in the fire sprinkler. As a result the fire sprinkler did not activate until the fire in this confined space had both gotten quite hot and also spread around the backside of the vent to where the sprinkler was located. Before the sprinkler was activated the fire melted a joint in the regular water distribution system and it was that water which did the water damage. Once activated the fire sprinkler did its job as designed and suppressed the fire. The fire sprinkler activation also prevented a potentially deadly roof collapse given the bridge truss construction used in this ceiling and roof structure. The fire sprinkler was promptly deactivated once the firefighters were on the scene. As noted, the water damage was caused by a fire induced breach in the regular water distribution system.

Like this comment
Posted by Curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm


How do you get this information?! I'm amazed at how much you know so quickly.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I simply asked the Fire Chief - because I knew that the sprinkler system would not cause any significant water damage.

Like this comment
Posted by Posh Bagel
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm

What ever the cause we sure hope the Posh Bagel gets back on its feet quickly! We will miss not only the bagels, but the great people who run the place!

Best to all of the business owners/workers.

Like this comment
Posted by inspection?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

How is it that there could be substandard venting? Doesn't the city or fire department or both inspect such things as part of the building permit process? This makes no sense to me.

Like this comment
Posted by lon time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 21, 2010 at 5:48 pm

It is possible that Cafe Silan's pizza oven was added after they opened without a permit.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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