Smoke from a three-alarm fire that gutted the city’s Chamber of Commerce building continued to billow lightly, and firefighters sprayed water from hoses on stubborn hot spots early Thursday afternoon July 13th, after an overnight blaze that was noticeable for miles.
The raging fire at 100 Lafayette Circle in the upscale downtown area sent embers high into the sky and destroyed more than a half dozen businesses, including La Finestra restaurant. Observers as far away as Pittsburg could see smoke in the early morning sky, and people smelled the smoke from as far as two miles away.
“This is a case, where if this had been a red-flag day, who knows what it would’ve done,” Fire Prevention Capt. George Laing of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District said. “We had embers falling blocks away.”
Officials estimate the damage to the building and its businesses at $1.1 million. As many as nine businesses may have been destroyed, but Laing said he was still waiting for an official list. Nobody was injured.
“First and foremost, we are so grateful that no one was physically hurt,” Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jay Lifson said in a statement that thanked firefighters, police and community members volunteering to help. “We feel deeply saddened about our neighbor businesses who are also taking first steps back today. Please keep them in your thoughts.”
Several citizens gathered behind yellow and red tape and stared with disbelieving looks.
“Devastation. Sadness,” said Diane Barbera, a board member for the Chamber of Commerce, wiping a tear away. “I got the alert (around 8 a.m.), and came to work. I’m just shocked and devastated, and I wanted to see how I could help.”
It’s been a difficult time for the area. A giant eucalyptus tree fell and crushed several cars in the parking lot in January. Nobody was injured in that incident.
The fire Thursday also charred the trunk of a 40-foot tree just outside the building.
An adjacent apartment building received a small bit of smoke damage but was otherwise unhurt. The apartment is located on the right side of the driveway entrance for the Chamber of Commercebuilding.
Jordan Lockwood woke late Wednesday to get water in her unit closest to the Chamber of Commerce and said she’d returned to bed for only moments when she heard an explosion.
“It was a very loud boom of some kind,” she said. “I thought it was a bomb or some kind of explosive. I knew something wasn’t right. Right after that, I saw a fireball of some kind come crashing down on the ground outside. That’s when I grabbed my stuff and got out.”
Fire crews quickly evacuated the apartment after they arrived at the scene.
“There were people out here in their underwear,” Lockwood said.
Investigators were searching for the cause but did not say it was suspicious.
“The entire building is completely destroyed,” Fire Marshal Robert Marshall said. “There’s nothing salvageable. I’m not even sure we’ll be able to get belongings out of there.”
Outside the fire lines, Carrie McConn, a manager at Suite 102 Hair Designs, one of the businesses destroyed, hoped he was wrong.
“My hope was to get just a few things,” McConn said. “There’s a lot in there.”
McConn said she’s been managing the shop for the past three years. The business has operated there for 35 years.
“I’m shocked,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable. I’m trying to find out what we’re going to do.”
Firefighters contained the fire shortly before 1 a.m., but remained at the scene into the afternoon to clean up. Crews needed extra water from the East Bay Municipal Utility District, because of the fire’s intensity. The all-wood siding also added fuel to the blaze, Laing said.
“There was just an unbelievable amount of heat and fire,” he said.
Crews put out the last of the hot spots around 6 a.m. but were still monitoring for flare-ups into the afternoon.
“There’s one area in particular that’s in a very difficult spot for the guys to reach,” Laing said.
Check back for updates.
Contact George Kelly at 408-859-5180.
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