Big Fire Destroys Businesses At California Strip Mall

San Jose's biggest commercial-property fire in two years swept roared through part of a strip mall south of downtown today, destroying about a dozen small businesses and damaging several others.

About 150 firefighters battled flames for four hours before commanders declared the fire at the Seven Trees Shopping Center under control.

Seven Trees, located on the 4100 block of Monterey Highway, at the intersection of Senter Road, serves a largely Asian and Latino clientele through a variety of largely mom-and-pop businesses.

The several buildings at the center, which house about 50 businesses, were built in 1965 and 1966, according to property records. They were retrofitted with fire sprinklers, which firefighters said helped limit the structural damage to $3 million or more. The owner is Gold Touch Investment, based in Los Altos.

No injuries were reported.

Flames could be seen dancing out of the top of one of the buildings shortly after the first call came in to the fire department at 7:26 a.m. A black column of smoke billowed into the sky and spread over the southern part of the city.

When the first crew arrived and opened a glass door on the northeast side of the building, they confronted ``a wall of flames,'' fire Capt. Allison Cabral said.

That crew was pumping 250 gallons of water onto the fire every minute. ``It wasn't even making a dent in the fire,'' she said.

The company immediately called in a second alarm, at 7:31 a.m. Fifteen minutes, later, commanders sounded a third alarm. By 8:31 a.m., the fire had been elevated to five alarms, bringing mutual aid from Santa Clara County Fire Department and personnel and equipment from as far away as Campbell. At one point, more than 1,000 gallons of water gushed onto the fire every minute.

The first crew on the scene immediately fell back to defend the rest of the shopping center and nearby apartment buildings from any embers that might spark secondary fires.

The fire was declared contained at about 10:15 a.m., and controlled 58 minutes later.

Today was the first time San Jose has called for mutual since a $1 million fire destroyed a large section of Pioneer High School late last year.

It was also the largest commercial-property fire since August 2002, when a $100 million inferno destroyed much of the partially built Santana Row retail and residential complex. In that fire -- the biggest in city history -- blowing embers touched off secondary fires at nearby apartments and condominiums, prompting angry residents to complain about the slowness of the response to their plight.

The impact of the Seven Trees fire dawned quickly on some of those directly affected.

Ivonne Garcia, a student at the Ganaye Academy of Cosmetology, said she was in the school at about 7:30 a.m., preparing for class, when she smelled light smoke filtering in.

``I just thought I better get out of here,'' she said. When Garcia and five other students left the building, they saw smoke pouring from the rear of a neighboring business.

``I saw everything collapse,'' she recalled later. ``Everything is gone -- our work, our money. I don't known how we are going to recuperate.''

Twelve businesses were destroyed in six separate spaces, according to a preliminary count that grew over the course of the day. The largest was a discount merchandiser, but a cafe, an aquarium, a jeweler, a clothing shop and a Vietnamese restaurant were also wiped out. At least one of the stores contained some kiosk-type businesses that were also destroyed.

Tenants speculated that the fire began in or to the rear of the Nhung Garden restaurant, because of the amount of smoke they saw coming from that area, but fire officials were not prepared to comment on the cause or the location of the fire's origin.

Even before the fire was contained, officials announced they were organizing a ``town hall' meeting for 1 p.m. at the incident command post on site, at which affected business owners would be able to get some answers and perhaps find out when they can enter their businesses, Cabral said.

As big as the Seven Trees fire was, it didn't hold a candle to the Santana Row blaze.

``There's no relationship between Santana Row and this fire,'' Cabral said. ``They're completely different.''

Santana Row was an 11-alarm blaze, while Seven Trees was five. Santana Row involved 200,000 square feet of wood-framing under construction, while Seven Trees involved 24,000 to 30,000 square feet.

The Santana Row fire was called in at 3:36 p.m., at the hottest part of the day. Seven Trees began in the cool of the morning.

Even so, Cabral said Santana Row did affect how today's blaze was handled.

``The lessons that we learned proved to be very important.''

After Santana Row, the department adopted a policy of sending units downwind of any large fire to patrol for flying embers that might spark secondary blazes. As it turned out, that was not a problem today.