Chief: East Palo Alto apartment fire not intentional

75 displaced in Newell Court blaze will be out for several weeks

See video of the fire, submitted by John Woodell.

Investigators have learned that Thursday's two-alarm blaze at an apartment complex in East Palo Alto was not intentionally set, a fire chief said Friday afternoon.

Firefighters responded to the fire at a multi-building complex at 1 Newell Court at about 6:05 p.m., Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

Arriving crews put out the fire a short time later and no one was injured but more than 75 people were displaced by the fire and will have to find alternate housing for several weeks, Schapelhouman said.

"The fire was so hot in the corridors that it melted the smoke detectors," he said.

Schapelhouman said he spoke to a building manager, who said the work that needs to be done on the damaged units might take "some time."

In all, one unit burned in the fire, and another three to five

units sustained significant water damage, he said.

Schapelhouman said the cause of the blaze appears accidental and that it was not maliciously set.

A damage estimate was not immediately available.

The Newell Court apartments have worried fire and police officials since former owner, Page Mill Properties, defaulted on its loan and the properties were repossessed by the bank, officials said.

At one time, conditions were so hazardous at the complex that fire and police officials considered evacuating all seven buildings, Schapelhouman said.

The two-alarm fire, which drew fire-department units from East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Woodside and Palo Alto, started in a third-story apartment at 6:05 p.m. at 1 Newell Court, which is located at West Bayshore Road and Newell Court, he said.

The fire spread to the balcony. Six units were damaged, including three directly below the top unit from water damage, he said. No one was injured.

But the extent of the damage won't be known until next week, he said. Larmar Properties, property managers for the bank, will board up the structures and keep them on fire watch to ensure they do not pose a further hazard to the public or the fire department, he said.

"Based upon the significance and the severity of the fire, the entire complex will be closed," he said.

Schapelhouman credited quick control of the fire with the department's aggressive response.

But the outcome could have been devastating, with a large loss of life and many injuries, Schapelhouman said. The apartments are on the fire department's target hazard list as being of significant life risk to the public, he said.

"The stars were lined up tonight. If there's such as thing as luck, we got lucky," he said.

The structures were once part of the vast East Palo Alto holdings of bankrupt Palo Alto developer Page Mill Properties. A complex maze of apartment buildings covers nearly a quarter mile on the west side of U.S. Highway 101 and bordered by San Francisquito Creek and Newell Road.

Schapelhouman said the configuration makes reaching inner buildings difficult for fire equipment. Firefighters and residents got lucky because the blaze was at the most accessible apartment on the top floor of a building adjacent to West Bayshore.

"If it had been in the middle of the complex we couldn't have controlled it," he said.

He said there are 35 units in the building and 30 were occupied. Firefighters have been concerned about a high occupancy rate within the units, he added.

"This is where we see issues of the economy. People have doubled, tripled and quadrupled the number of residents in the apartments. There's a real potential if we end up with fire in these units for multiple injuries and fatalities. That's real," he said.

Schapelhouman did not blame the landlord, as the apartment occupancy often increases as financial need becomes greater. Behind closed doors in the privacy of their apartments, no one really knows what is going on, he said.

Fire officials do know that residents tend to store many belongings, with whole families sleeping on mattresses on the floor in every room, he added.

The buildings were built in the 1960s and 1970s, prior to sprinkler ordinances, he said. But they also did not have fire alarms when Page Mill owned the buildings, he said. Fire inspectors worked with Larmar Properties to recently have alarms installed and inspected in the units.

But "did they work when we needed them to? Did anyone pull them?" Schapelhouman said.

Officials don't yet have that answer; the fire was called in by a person on the street, he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2011 at 11:31 pm

What a relief that no one was injured. It took awhile to find info online about this. The smell of smoke, seeing it in the air, hearing & seeing choppers & rescue vehicles - all that went on for quite some time. That's a massive complex & I hope this spurs the management company to come up w/a good plan in case of fire - not to mention, figure out how many tenants really occupy the units.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Ironic
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Dam glad nobody got hurt I know a lot of people over there. I always thought if a fire happened over there it would be very hard to put out due to the configuration of the complex and the fact that they're so many complex's in such a small area.

Like this comment
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

"Schapelhouman credited quick control of the fire with the department's aggressive response.

But the outcome could have been devastating, with a large loss of life and many injuries, Schapelhouman said. The apartments are on the fire department's target hazard list as being of significant life risk to the public, he said."

If the complex was on the fire dept.'s hazard list, why wasn't anything done about the situation? The fire officials expected a fire and it was just a question of when??!! So they waited?!

Like this comment
Posted by Don't need to be a rocket scientist
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I'll bet this was arson.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm

What makes you think it was arson?

Like this comment
Posted by gloria
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 30, 2011 at 12:41 am

Thank god above for our wonderful and quick responding firefighters. They are amazing. God bless them for their heroic efforts.

Like this comment
Posted by Contented resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 30, 2011 at 12:59 pm

He says, "In the privacy of their apartments no one really knows what's going on?" What do you think is going on? We're eating, sleeping, watching TV, etc. etc. This is an affordable rental and I like it, although the management leaves much to be desired.

Even poor people are entitled to privacy!

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 30, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I think if you take his comments in full context - what he was trying to say is that there is no way to determine how many people are actually living in each of the units (and possibly exceeding safety/occupancy limits).

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

I agree w/Crescent Park Dad on this - the context was not knowing how many people are living in each unit. I'm not in an apartment, but have concerns about some of the small houses local to me - way to many cars for the occupancy to legal in a number of them. These people are lousy neighbors, too - and a lot of that is the responsibility of the management company who supposedly has experience with portfolios this size.

I am so sorry about this fire while simultaneously grateful that no one was injured or killed and that the fire crew could easily get to it. I hope that we're all informed as to the cause.

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 1, 2011 at 11:38 am

LOL my old mold infested apartment burned down.

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 1, 2011 at 11:43 am


When I lived there as many as 3 familys lived in the 2 bed room apts. Most of the time it was 2 familys though with the kids camping out in the living room.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm


What the fire chief was saying when he used the term "target Hazard" are words used by fire depts to describe buildings that by their size, age, condition, construction, occupancy' etc. Are buildings that will pose serious problems under fire conditions to life, and present firefighters with a difficult firefight. Big older apartment buildings without fire sprinkler systems, equal serious rescue challenges. Compounded by occupancy rates higher than the expected means more potential deaths or injuries. "Target Hazard" describes a building where the fire dept knows the building will not be a easy fire to access and or contain. They spend extra time doing building inspections by crews before a fire seeing best access for ladders, hose lays needed, construction features, ventilation methods that might be needed, fire dept equipment best access features, hydrant locations, resident storage habits, etc etc etc.
The Chief was basicly trying to say the dept spent extra time at this building for strategy reasons, "target hazard" doesnt mean code violations most times. It just is saying the building is going to be a TOUGH fight and it is not going to be an easy fight. The FD wants to know their people are very familiar with the building and it's challenges. With thousands of buildings covered by a dept they are just saying that "target hazards" are the ones that possibly will cause great loss of human life and or huge dollar loss in the event of fire, add design and or constructiion features that promote rapid fire spread and you get a "Target Hazard". The term does not mean the fire dept sat by and did not correct a wrong or ignored code violations. The fact is many buildings were built years ago before stricter codes were put in place, no fire sprinkler, limited access, features that promote smoke and fire spread, etc. The fire dept can't change what was built or mandate the owners add fire sprinklers in many cases. They can only prepare ahead of time in case a fire does occur. So that if a fire does happen in a "target hazard" that hopefully the dept will have a much better chance of containing the fire and putting it out quickly. It looks like in this case the fire dept did just that. This fire could have resulted in many lives lost, especialy if it happened in the middle of the night.

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

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