Ruined comic books littered the streets and strands from melted cassette tapes dangled from a burned opening in The Sub, a longtime downtown San Luis Obispo novelty store, after an aggressive blaze destroyed the building Saturday. Crews remained on the scene Sunday to extinguish hot spots and smoldering areas at 295 Higuera St., which housed The Sub and Square Deal Recordings & Supplies.
Detectives, an arson investigation team and firefighters were on site to investigate the cause of the fire, said San Luis Obispo fire Chief Garret Olson. The building will be “red tagged” Monday and deemed unsafe for entry, said Anne Schneider, chief building official with the San Luis Obispo building and safety departments. Crews must first stabilize the walls of the building before officials can enter the space to investigate the source of the fire.
“We’re going to try to preserve as much of the integrity of the building as we can, per the request of the building owner, and see what we can do to find out the cause and origin of the fire,” Olson said.
No one was hurt in the fire, and several neighboring businesses were saved from the fire, resulting in little to no damage to those properties. The fire did not spread next door to Quality Fabrics and Supply Co., but the store had mild smoke and water damage. Olson attributes the fire’s containment to an intact fire wall between the two buildings.
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The fire began about 10:49 a.m. Saturday. Tony Linhares, a nearby resident, said he heard an explosion coming from the area. Linhares also said he smelled smoke and saw the store’s front windows blow out.
10:49The time the fire began Saturday morning
12The hours it took firefighters to extinguish the blaze
22,000Number of cassette tapes lost in the fire, according to co-owner Richard Ferris
24,000Number of CDs lost in the fire, according to co-owner
100,000Number of vinyl recordings lost, according to co-owner
“It was pretty out of control at that point … they (firefighters) had their hands full,” Linhares said.
He said flames were touching the roof of the building before firefighters arrived on scene, less than four minutes after the fire began.
Olson said the fire had advanced quickly before crews arrived on scene.
“The building is incredibly dynamic,” Olson said. “The fuel load is intense, and you can see from the photos early on, on the Tribune’s website, how advanced the fire was prior to our arrival.”
Firefighters quickly entered the building, attacking the fire from the interior as a truck company cut holes in the roof to help smoke and extreme heat escape, according to a news release. The fire began burning overhead and behind the firefighters, Olson said. He added that conditions became unsafe for crews because of the amount of debris and stockpiled storage in the area. Interior crews were forced out of the building by heavy heat and smoke caused by the excessive fire load, according to the news release. Firefighters worked for about 12 hours to extinguish the main body of the fire.
The incident was a three-alarm fire, Olson said, meaning it required a large amount of initial response.
“It’s been quite a few years since the city’s had a fire where we’ve needed as many resources as that,” Olson said.
More than 50 firefighters from throughout San Luis Obispo County responded to the fire, and firefighters from Santa Barbara County backfilled local fire stations in case of emergencies.
Richard Ferris, co-owner of The Sub, criticized first-responding San Luis Obispo firefighters, accusing them of not attacking the fire directly and allowing it to spread.
“When we got here, which was 10 minutes after the fire started, the fire was confined to the front window box of The Sub,” Ferris said. “One fireman with a hose could have put it out. They never would go in the building and fight the fire, not once would a fireman take a hose in our building and fight the fire.”
Ferris said he tried to explain the interior of the building to firefighters but was ignored. “They refused to fight my fire from the beginning,” he said.
Uncertain as to what could have started the fire, Ferris said he didn’t think it was an electrical fire, because the store’s breaker didn’t blow until after the smoke was rolling out from the front window.
“It went from nothing at all, no smell, no smoke, nothing. To black clouds rolling out the window, within two minutes,” he said.
He added, “We have 40 years’ worth of collectable graphics that we had accumulated and saved. There’s no way you can replace that. We had 100,000 sound recordings, vinyl, in our basement.”
Ferris said that there was 100 percent damage, but he did not know the total monetary loss. Officials said Saturday that damage to the contents alone could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Almost an unthinkable amount of fuel load, it was everything from vinyl to paints and cleaning supplies, to gasoline, storage equipment … just piled all the way to the ceiling.
Ferris said he hopes to rebuild in the same location and preserve as much of the original building as possible. He said he was unsure whether The Sub would ever reopen but thought that the store’s wholesale business would likely recover — much of the wholesale business is online. He said they were able to rescue the store’s four computer servers from the building, and Ferris canceled the 600 orders that the business would have fulfilled Monday.
When asked about Ferris’ complaints, Olson said that both the building and the fire were extremely dangerous and while they are sad to see the loss of the structure, they are pleased that no firefighters were injured.
“We understand that the building owner is very upset with the loss of his business,” Olson said. “We understand that, and we have great empathy for that gentleman and his workers and the people that loved this business. I can tell you as somebody that was here throughout the entire day and the evening, I stand behind my firefighters as delivering some exceptional firefighting.”
The fire destroyed most of the about 10,000-square-foot building. It burned most of the main retail store, an apartment located in the main building, and an adjacent warehouse unit, in addition to three or four nearby trailers the business used for storage. The store’s basement is filled with water.
There was a fire wall separating the retail area from the apartment and warehouse storage area. Normally the solid brick wall would stop the progress of fire, Olson said, but there were openings in the fire wall.
“We knew if it reached the fire wall, that had holes in it, that we were in for a long, hard fight. And it did,” Olson said.
Olson said there was storage stacked about 18 feet high in the warehouse storage area.
“Almost an unthinkable amount of fuel load, it was everything from vinyl to paints and cleaning supplies, to gasoline, storage equipment … just piled all the way to the ceiling.”
In addition to the breached fire wall, there were no fire sprinklers in the building, Olson said. Fire sprinklers were not required when the building was constructed around the 1920s.
“We’re extremely disappointed with the outcome, but I’m not one bit disappointed in the efforts of our firefighters. I think they did an amazing job, and if this building could have been saved, I have great confidence that they would have done it,” Olson said.
Danielle Ames: 805-781-7902
Tribune staff writer Matt Fountain contributed to this report.