Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 4:58 am | Fair 33º

 
 
 
 

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Massive, Hours-Long Fire Destroys Downtown San Luis Obispo Businesses

Building owner criticizes Fire Department response to blaze that started inside The Sub, a ‘SLO staple’

Firefighters battle an hours-long blaze raging inside The Sub and adjoining businesses on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. Click to view larger
Firefighters battle an hours-long blaze raging inside The Sub and adjoining businesses on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. (Gary Lambert photo)

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 in the 200 block of Higuera Street. 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 street 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. Firefighters and police arrived, evacuated the buildings and began attacking the flames from the front, rear and roof of the building.

Fire officials made a call for mutual aid and were soon assisted by engines and crews from the Five Cities Fire AuthorityCal Fire, the Atascadero Fire DepartmentCalifornia Men’s Colony Fire and San Luis Ambulance.

Click to view larger
(Gary Lambert photo)

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 & Supply Co. and an apartment, San Luis Obispo Fire Battalion Chief Neal Berryman said.

He said the apartment was severely damaged by the fire and the fabric store had water and smoke damage.

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 firefighters but was ignored.

Click to view larger
(Gary Lambert photo)

“They never once went into The Sub,” he said. “They could have put it out in 30 seconds with a fire hose without respirator gear when they arrived. But they refused to go inside and evaluate the fire from the inside of the building.”

Ferris 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,” he said of the inventory inside. “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.

“They’re going to totally ruin all that when they could have saved it.”

When asked about Ferris’ complaints, Berryman said 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,” he said, noting the large amount of combustible inventory in the business and warehouse. “We attempted (to stop the spread), but it didn’t work.

“It was a bad fire with a bad fire load.”

Throughout the day, businesses up to a block away, including Smart & Final, closed doors but remained open. Smart & Final manager Colleen Corrigan and her staff ferried coffee and other goods to emergency responders.

Click to view larger
(Gary Lambert photo)

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,” Berryman said.

Berryman said 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, he said.

The total monetary loss was not known either, although officials say damage to contents alone could reach 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.”

— Matt Fountain is a reporter with the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact him at [email protected]. This story is republished with permission.

Click to view larger
(Gary Lambert photo)
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