An early morning fire at Cubberley Community Center damaged the office of "Friends of the Palo Alto Library" Monday, destroying computer equipment and causing major damage to the modular building just days before the group's monthly book sale.
Firefighters arrived at the scene shortly after 4:30 a.m. and managed to contain the flames to the sorting room, where the nonprofit group organizes its activities and accepts donations. John Burt, a volunteer with the Friends group, said a homeless man who frequents the Cubberley campus with his dog saw the flames and alerted the Fire Department.
The building was unoccupied and no one was injured, but the fire destroyed two computers, a copy machine and various miscellaneous office supplies, said Jim Schmidt, president of the Friends group, who visited the scene shortly after the fire.
Schmidt said flames were crawling along the ceiling and toward the inventory room, where thousands of books were located. Firefighters put out the fire before it could reach the books, Schmidt said.
"The fire started to move down from the office to over the first row of the book room," Schmidt said. "It almost got to the inventory before it was contained."
By Monday afternoon, the sorting room was scattered with debris, including chunks of insulation and wall remnants. The broken ceiling stretched from the sorting room to the inventory room, where several aisles of books were covered under a red tarp.
A sign near the front door to the bungalow said, "Closed indefinitely because of the fire."
Emergency Services Coordinator Suzan Minshall said firefighters were able to cover the books in the room with "salvage covers" to protect them from the spreading flames. She said the fire damage was largely limited to walls and the ceiling in the building, as well as the office equipment.
She said 18 firefighters responded to the fire. Though the cause of the fire is still being investigated, fire officials believe it may be related to a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit, Minshall said.
Burt said volunteers detected a strange smell coming from the air conditioners in recent days. They alerted Mobile Modulars, the company from whom the Friends group leases the buildings, and company officials stopped by in recent days to examine the equipment.
Schmidt and Stone both said it's too early to tell how much it will cost to replace the office equipment and repair the damaged building. Assessors were scheduled to survey the damage later today (Monday).
"There's going to be a lot of work that will need to be done," Schmidt said.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to the Friends group is asked to e-mail the group's book-sale manager, Jerry Stone, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Friends group has long raised money for the city's library system, which will undergo major renovations in the coming years as part of a $76 million bond local voters passed in 2008.
In June, the Friends group approved two grants totaling $300,000, including $200,000 for new programs and an expanded book collection and $100,000 to the Palo Alto Library Foundation to pay for furniture and equipment at the new libraries.
The group typically houses and sells more than 20,000 books every month. Stone said there were abotu 32,000 books in the room at the time of the fire. Though most weren't damaged in the fire, Stone said some were damaged by the smell of smoke, which will remain inside the books for some time.
"It's likely the smoke will be permeated in them," Stone said. "We certainly won't get what we were hoping to get for them."
But he also said the situation could've been a lot worse. If the firefighters hadn't stopped the flames from spreading when they did, the whole book collection and the entire building could've been destroyed.
Stone said the group may consider airing the smoke-damaged books out somewhere else on the campus before the weekend sale.
Schmidt said the group plans to proceed with its August book sale this weekend despite the Monday morning fire. Though the Main Room, which is near the sorting room, will be closed, the Children's Room and the Bargain Room will be operating as usual. He said the group is still trying to figure out where to shift its Main Room operations.
The book sale will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday at Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road. The Children's Room and the Bargain Room will open at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
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