Questions raised about sprinkler, alarm system

Two days after a fast-moving fire broke out in the lumber section of South San Jose Home Depot, leveling the sprawling home improvement store, important questions remain unanswered as to what caused such a catastrophic fire—and the store’s fire suppression system. How well it was working when the flames went up.

Direct accounts of customers and employees at the store at the time of the fire have raised doubts about when the store’s fire alarms go off, and whether the store’s sprinklers are ever turned off. So far, the San Jose Fire Department has yet to respond to any questions regarding this news organization’s store’s sprinkler and alarm system. Meanwhile, Home Depot has forwarded all questions to the fire department.

“We are talking to the alarm company, the people there and its witnesses. These will all need to be looked into and will be part of the investigation,” San Jose Fire spokeswoman Erica Ray said Monday. It could be “days, weeks or even months” before committing.

According to fire officials, the crew continued to monitor the hot spot as small fires broke out due to debris trapped under the collapsed roof. The air at the site of the fire smelled of burning plastic and chemicals. Police were also on the spot to secure the scene as investigators inspected the remains of the building in hopes of finding a cause.

“The roof is doing its job, unfortunately, even in the state it is in, creating a blanket over the rubble below,” Ray said. “We want to be out there to deal with some smoldering fire more aggressively, but we want to make sure we’re not compromising the scene, so we’re fighting it from a more difficult vantage point right now.”

SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 11: San Jose firefighters work on placing a hotspot behind a Home Depot store that burned down last Saturday, Monday, April 11, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area Newsgroup)

The five-alarm fire, which was reported at around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, blew a plume of black and brown smoke so far into the sky that it could be seen across the South Bay. The intense heat—created by a mixture of wood, chemicals and paint products—was so strong that it was detected by orbiting satellites. It took firefighters six hours to douse the fire.

Jeff Baham, 54, of San Jose was mixing paint with his wife in the shop when Baham said his wife smelled the smell described as a campfire. A cashier then walked down the aisle and told the people that there was a fire and they needed to leave.

“My first comment was to the person behind me – why isn’t there a fire alarm?” They said.

As Baham and his wife were leaving the shop, someone over a loudspeaker told everyone to leave. Baham said that once they were out, the alarm finally went off, and a huge bill of gray smoke rolled through the front door.

“You can see through the doors that the fire is falling from the ceiling – embers and big chunks of blazing red are coming down,” he said, adding that he had never seen a sprinkler extinguished. “If you were in the back of the store and waited until the alarm went off for some reason, it would have been dangerous or maybe they wouldn’t have taken it out.”

Philip Hurst, a 36-year-old San Jose resident, was at Home Depot to buy plants and soil and was in his car when he saw a commotion in front of the store and ran back from the parking lot. He quickly pulled out his phone to take videos and pictures of the fire.

The now-level Home Depot store employed about 130 employees, according to Nancy Klein, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development. Most of those employees are expected to be relocated to five other Home Depot locations in San Jose or nearby cities, he said.

Home Depot is one of the top tax-revenue-driving businesses in San Jose, as well as serving as a good community partner and gathering place for residents, Klein said.

“It’s a terrible loss,” Klein said. “We’ll be looking forward to seeing it, hopefully, rebuilt and return to all the benefits – maybe even bigger and better.”

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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 10: A Home Depot store on Blossom Hill Road is destroyed by fire on Sunday, April 10, 2022 in San Jose, California. (Nhat v. Meyer / Bay Area Newsgroup)

More than 100 firefighters responded to the fire in an effort to prevent any damage to nearby homes, as well as the neighborhood behind the store. Evacuations were issued for about 15 nearby homes on El Lisa Drive, as well as several nearby stores and businesses.

Although there were no reports of people being injured or missing, residents of the area were asked to shelter on Saturday night to avoid exposure to potentially harmful pollution from plastic and other hazardous materials melting inside the store.

Sherry Butts, 59, who lives behind a Home Depot store and runs a daycare business out of her home, smelled smoke on Saturday. Butts – who lives with her 77-year-old mother and carries a cane – said her neighbors helped her evacuate.

“Within minutes, white smoke came in. My throat got burnt. I couldn’t even help getting my dog ​​down the stairs,” she said.

The fire damaged his roof and his fence was torn down by firefighters working to put out the fire.

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SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 11: Sherry Butts, whose backyard and terrace were damaged by the Home Depot fire on Saturday, gets emotional during an interview on Monday, April 11, 2022 in San Jose, Calif. Butts runs a daycare and rents it out. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area Newsgroup)

Henry Estrella, who lives at the corner of El Lisa and El Dory Drive, was just getting out of the shower when he felt the plastic burning. He went out the front door and saw the trees in front of his house were covered in smoke. Some embers flew onto the roofs, prompting Estrella’s 17-year-old neighbor Oscar Pack to climb onto the roof and pull them out with a hose.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The energy in that fire was enormous. I thought the house must have burnt down here. The firefighters did a tremendous job.”

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SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 11: Henry Estrella, whose roof caught fire at Home Depot on Saturday, talks during an interview on Monday, April 11, 2022 in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area Newsgroup)
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SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 11: Oscar Pack, 17, who helped put out a fire on his neighbor’s roof during a fire at Home Depot on Saturday, talks during an interview on Monday, April 11, 2022 in San Jose, Calif. Is. Dai Sugano/Bay Area Newsgroup)
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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 9: Firefighters from the San Jose City Fire Department fight a fire at The Home Depot on Blossom Hill Road on Saturday, April 9, 2022 in San Jose, Calif. (Nhat v. Meyer / Bay Area Newsgroup)

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