A longtime favorite downtown San Luis Obispo gift store is gone after a massive blaze gutted its building Saturday before spreading to adjoining businesses during an hours-long firefight that sent a blanket of black smoke across the southern end of the city.
No one was hurt in the fire, and several neighboring properties were saved with little to no damage.
The owner of The Sub, however, criticized first-responding San Luis Obispo firefighters, alleging they did not attack the fire directly and allowed it to spread.
The Sub was a popular small business on the 200 block of Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo. Self-described as a “cultural gifts store,” The Sub was known to carry a large and eclectic collection of rare posters and records, as well as clothes, tapestries, smoking pipes, antiques and tobacco products.
The family-owned business was established in 1972, according to its Facebook page.
On Saturday night, firefighters from several agencies remained on the scene, extinguishing hotspots and making way for investigators. The road remained closed to traffic from Marsh Street to Madonna Road, with northbound traffic being diverted through High Street.
The fire began about 10:49 a.m. near the corner of Marsh and Higuera streets. San Luis Obispo firefighters and police arrived, evacuated the buildings and began attacking the flames from the front, rear and roof of the building.
SLO personnel made a call for mutual aid and were soon assisted by engines and crews from Five Cities Fire, Cal Fire, the Atascadero Fire Department, California Men’s Colony Fire and San Luis Ambulance.
Despite the heavy dousing of water from above and all sides, the fire spread through the attic of the The Sub into an adjoining warehouse and damaged the neighboring Quality Fabrics and Supply Co. and an apartment, SLO Fire Department Battalion Chief Neal Berryman said. The apartment suffered severe fire damage and the fabric store suffered water and smoke damage, Berryman said.
As the afternoon progressed, crowds of onlookers lined the streets surrounding the old building, watching as chunks of roofing and other debris were blasted into the air by the flames and fire hoses.
At about 3 p.m., as the fire burned and the store’s front awning gave in to the constant barrage of water, property owner Richard Ferris said the business and its 10,000-square-foot warehouse were totally lost — and he blamed it on “inept” first-responding firefighters.
Ferris said he was at the building within five minutes of the fire starting — likely by electronics, he said — within a thin room that served as a front window display, separated by the main store area by a wall. He said he tried to explain the interior of the building to San Luis Obispo firefighters but was ignored.
“They never once went into The Sub. They could have put it out in 30 seconds with a fire hose without respirator gear when they arrived,” Ferris said. “But they refused to go inside and evaluate the fire from the inside of the building.”
He said firefighters instead attacked the fire from the roof and the flames gradually spread to the warehouse and later the adjoining upholstery business.
“Forty years worth of graphics and art prints that are never replaceable. The basement’s full of old vinyl that’s all turntable-graded. But now they’re busy filling the basement with water for no reason,” Ferris said. “They’re going to totally ruin all that when they could have saved it.”
When asked about Ferris’ complaints, Berryman said his firefighters did initially attack the front of the store and broke a hole into the roof to allow for heat to escape, but the flames quickly breached their established firewall, prompting firefighters to retreat.
“It was too much fire. We attempted (to stop the spread), but it didn’t work,” Berryman said, noting the large amount of combustible inventory in the business and warehouse. “It was a bad fire with a bad fire load.”
Throughout the day, other neighboring businesses a block away, including Smart & Final, closed doors but remained open. Manager Colleen Corrigan and members of her staff ferried coffee and other goods to emergency responders throughout the day.
As the sun set and with a clear night approaching with a low of 32 degrees, according to the Weather Channel, a San Luis Obispo city bus was set up a block away to act as a warming center for personnel who would remain through the night.
“My biggest concern is my guys out there ... who’ve been working in this cold, soaking wet, all day,” he said.
Berryman said that investigators had only begun to be able to access the interior of The Sub to begin their investigation. Nothing, including arson, had been ruled out, Berryman said.
The total monetary loss was not known either, though officials say damage to contents alone could reach the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On Saturday evening, more than 100 customers and followers of The Sub on Facebook posted their support to the owners and staff and grieved the loss of the “SLO staple.”