Fire damages library 'Friends' office, spares books

Computers, copier destroyed in Friends of the Palo Alto Library sorting room

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.

The sale will proceed next weekend.

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

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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Like this comment
Posted by Rwolf
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I hope someone says "thanks" to the homeless guy who reported it! He prevented a much bigger disaster.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 9, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Maybe it's time for the "Friends" to buy a fire alarm for this building, even if the Fire Department does not require it.

Like this comment
Posted by DaveW
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 9, 2010 at 7:47 pm

The din of the odor is heavy enough now that to eliminate it might be time consuming and expensive. I heard they are contacting their insurance company to be compensated for the smoke damaged inventory which the odor seems to have permeated - no scorched or water damaged books were to be seen by me. They are taking some books home to see if they can be aired out. Future sales will go on because of the recent abundance of space with inclusion of the old JCC offices bldg. I was told that some of the volunteers were in tears...

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 10, 2010 at 12:33 am

Sounds like PAFD did a great job. Yet another case for fire sprinklers - fire alarms wouldn't have been enough if the fire was unwitnessed.

Like this comment
Posted by bookluvr
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

Sorry to hear about this. UV light (airing out in the sun) can deodorize smoke odor, but it may not be practical for so many books.
Maybe have a "fire sale" of the books and let the buyers air them out.
Books from the home of a smoker have an odor, as do books that were kept in damp homes.

Like this comment
Posted by Rich
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2010 at 10:30 am

It may be possible to remove the smoke smell from the books by using ozone. This technique is used by disaster restoration companies to de-stink books, clothes, and other items saved from fires. My family experienced this first-hand after everything we owned was exposed to smoke in a moving van fire. The mover hired a company at our destination which let everything sit for several days in a garage with an ozone generator, and they saved hundreds of books and stacks of important papers (and our car as well, which was being transported in the van).

Like this comment
Posted by Scottie Z
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 10, 2010 at 10:39 am

I'm a volunteer with the Friends. After the fire, I removed a few books from the top shelf of my "section" and brought them home. Without mentioning the fire, I asked family members to sniff the books. Given a 2-volume set of Proust, nobody commented on a smell of smoke. Sniffing the pages of a newer book, a couple of people could detect a faint smoky odor. I'm hoping that many of the books can recover from the smoke. With all the beautiful books donated recently it would be awful to lose them.

Like this comment
Posted by bunratty
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

I've de-odorized books that were in the homes of smokers by putting them in a plastic shoe box with a half inch of baking soda on the bottom and leaving them over night or longer depending on the severity of the smell and thickness of the book. (Obviously, the book should be placed on something to keep it out of the baking soda.) You could do quite a few books in a Banana box using an oven rack.

Like this comment
Posted by Moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Hooray, Volunteers!
Hooray, Friends of the Palo Alto Library!

We should be celebrating them instead of worrying about charred computers and potential lawsuits.

These wonderful people selflessly give their time and their hearts to the organization so that we may enjoy a wider, more up-to-date selection of media in more comfortable surroundings.

I have borrowed many, many DVDs that had labels

Like this comment
Posted by Moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm

(continued) . . . indicating that they had been purchased with funds raised by the Friends.

Thank you, thank you, for all that you do.

Like this comment
Posted by Library and Booksale Fan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Maybe it's time for the City of Palo Alto to provide decent space for the FOPAL booksale! The Friends just gave $300,000 TO the city for its libraries and it's required to rent this fire-hazard "bungalow" FROM the city at substantial cost to FOPAL. At the same time, the city provides well-below-market rates for the Cubberley artist studios and the Palo Alto Lawn Bowling Club. The FOPAL volunteers are great and shouldn't have to worry about working in a structure that's not safe.

Like this comment
Posted by jesse farris
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 11, 2010 at 3:09 am

i am the homeless guy who call the fire department. my name is jesse farris phone number 383-5119. god put us here to help one another. no matter who we are. thank you

Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Aug 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Today's Daily Post says that Andre Belton called the fire department. Did two homeless guys call the fire department, or are Jesse Farris and Andre Belton the same person, or did at least one of them not call the fire department?

Like this comment
Posted by FOPAL Volunteer
a resident of another community
on Aug 11, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I am a Friends volunteer. We know for certain that Andre Belton was the caller as the Post reported in the follow-up article today.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 11, 2010 at 9:49 pm

OK, here comes some very un-PC comments: Slow, dramatic clapping for the homeless guy who called in the library fire. Yes, he saved the day but for gods sake, he is living on a mattress behind the library!

Has anyone thought that all the homeless people camping out at Cubberley is a time bomb just waiting to go off badly? That place is full of unsupervised kids at all hours running in to use the bathrooms that the campers also use. Does it take a genius to figure out that it's just a matter of time before something bad comes out of that?

Is it really an appropriate solution for about a dozen homeless people to be basically living in cars or camping at a public community center used by a high percentage of kids? Why has this been ignored for so long?

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 12, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Palo Parent: how about donating your time to helping supervise the kids who use the bathrooms? That would be a help to the community. Just as Andre Belton helped the community by calling the Fire Dept. as promptly as he did.

In a true community, it shouldn't be a matter of either one set of users or the other.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm

j: I think you missed my point completely. Why should we have to supervise kids going to use the bathrooms in a public community center? I already volunteer quite a bit of my time coaching two kids sports teams at Cubberley, usually by myself. Should I leave those other kids alone on the field to supervise those needing to use the facilities? I mean, what the heck? Why not open up a bar at Cubberley to serve (no pun intended) those "set of users" as well?
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Al
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 16, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Palo Parent -

Your attempt to imply that (all) homeless people are a threat to children sounds like you listen to too much right-wing talk radio.

So you volunteer to coach young kids sports teams, and that's all very commendable but there have been hundreds of RECENT documented cases of coaches sexually abusing their charges, including the recent swim case in San Jose. While I'm sure you are a fine coach, how would you feel being painted with the same brush as those scumbags, i.e. coach = abuser???

It's not political correctness at work here, it's called compassion. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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