Home Depot fire appeared to start in lumber section

Firefighters continued monitoring hot spots Sunday evening after a fire tore through a Home Depot in South San Jose with such ferocity that orbiting satellites could detect its heat signature.

As the charred remains continued to smolder, an arduous cleanup effort loomed at the ashen building, and a San Jose city councilman vowed to find out what could be provided to help the retailer rebuild. Many people also voiced wonder at the lack of injuries at the store — as well as at another devastating blaze that began hours earlier at the Port of Benicia, which destroyed a dock and pier.

“I’m just incredibly grateful that there was no loss of life – that by far is the most important thing,” said San Jose Councilman Matt Mahan, about the pair of massive blazes that broke out across the Bay Area. “We can rebuild a building but that to me is the most important thing by far.”

Hot spots continued to send up smoke Sunday from the building’s smoldering remains as firefighters continued pouring water on the store and investigators worked to narrow down a cause of the Home Depot blaze.

A shelter-in-place advisory was lifted early Sunday afternoon for residents living near the store, San Jose fire officials announced. The toxic stew of chemicals, paint, insulation and other building materials burned in the blaze had prompted the air quality advisory.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 10: Fire damage at the entrance of the Home Depot store on Blossom Hill Road destroyed by fire in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

New details emerged Sunday that the first flames were reported in the back, southeast corner of the store around its lumber section, said Battalion Chief Bennett Yendrey of the San Jose Fire Department. As the fire spread, it appeared to overwhelm the store’s fire sprinkler system, a fire spokesman said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. It may take a couple days for investigators to fully access the scene, due to lingering hot spots, said Capt. Christopher Pickup, a fire department spokesman. There was “no indication this fire was suspicious in nature,” according to a fire department press release Sunday evening.

See more dramatic photos of the Home Depot fire in San Jose

The blaze sparked at about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, when dispatchers received numerous calls from employees and patrons about a commercial structure fire, according to San Jose Fire Battalion Chief Brad Cloutier. The Home Depot store, which is located in a shopping center across from the Westfield Oakridge Mall, quickly went up in flames, sending customers and employees fleeing for safety.

Some store employees had little chance to stamp out the fast-moving flames before being forced to flee, said Josh Thompson, a store employee who works in the lumber section.

Thompson said he was near the back breakroom when the call to evacuate was issued. He ran to the aisle with fire extinguishers, grabbed one, and then raced the section with gutters, edging metal and skylights.

By that point, Thompson recalled, a store employee had rushed over, saying “it’s too late.”

“It was already at the roof, and it was moving too fast for a fire extinguisher,” Thompson said.

He recalled his lungs burning as he tried helping usher employees and others out of the store. He then went next door to the pet hospital and helped evacuate dogs over there.

“Everybody got out, so it’s worth it,” Thompson said.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 10: The Home Depot store on Blossom Hill Road destroyed by fire in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Video footage shared on social media by San Jose resident Philip Hurst depicted a frightening scene in which large, fiery embers fell from the ceiling inside the store while Home Depot employees stood outside the doorway, yelling at people: “Get out of the building!”

Hurst, who was shopping inside the home improvement store before the fire, said he did not smell any smoke nor see any signs of a possible fire while shopping or checking out. But when he was putting his items in his car, he saw people rushing out of the store and went back to see what the commotion was about.

“I don’t know how it started, but it spread fast,” he said in a message. On his drive home, Hurst said pieces of ash measuring the size of a dinner plate were falling from the sky nearly a mile away from the store.

Firefighters finally got the five-alarm fire under control at 11:45 p.m. Saturday – about six hours after it erupted – but crews continued working throughout the night to clean up hotspots and ensure that embers did not drift over to neighboring businesses or homes.

“The roof has pretty much collapsed,” he said during a news briefing, adding that materials inside of the store like paint thinner, lumber and other flammable elements made the blaze uniquely challenging to extinguish. Cloutier called the Home Depot store “pretty much a total loss.”

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 10: Fire damage can be seen inside of the Home Depot store on Blossom Hill Road destroyed by fire in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

The National Weather Service tweeted that heat from the fire was detected by one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellites. The smoke plume also appeared on one of the agency’s weather radars.

The fire left a surreal scene on Sunday. Drone footage taken by The Mercury News on Sunday afternoon showed almost the entire building in shambles, except for a few outside walls. Outside the store’s front doors, potting plants and flowers were still green and unaffected.
Mahan, the San Jose councilman, said his team and city officials will be working over the coming days to find out what kind of help they can provide to Home Depot and its employees to get a new store up and running as soon as possible.

“From an economic development standpoint, San Jose already had less of a tax base than other cities and residents are already driving elsewhere for work, so it’s definitely a loss,” Mahan said.

At least 30 fire units with 100 firefighters responded to the scene, some of which were deployed to a neighborhood south of the store to prevent any damage to nearby homes. There have been no reports of injuries or missing people, Pickup said Sunday morning. During the firefight, Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office helicopter spotted two fires nearby and reported them to crews on the ground, though it investigators are not yet sure how they started.

Other nearby businesses, including Petco and the Wagly Veterinary Hospital and Pet Campus, were also forced to quickly evacuate. The Wagly Veterinary Hospital sustained water damage from firefighters pouring water on the blaze, as well as from crews creating a barrier between the buildings, Pickup said.

Anyone who is missing a pet has been instructed to report to the Golfland on Blossom Hill Road.

Rocky Olivares, who used to work at the Home Depot store, said he immediately responded to the scene when he heard about the fire to make sure his former coworkers were safe. When he arrived, Home Depot had already been evacuated but he said it appeared that the wind and smoke were moving toward the Wagly Veterinary Hospital.

Concerned about those still inside, Olivares said he ran into the building and began working to get employees and pets out safely.

“It was smoky in the building,” he said. “You could see but there was a thermal layer and there was already a layer of smoke.”

The veterinary hospital received some smoke and water damage from firefighters working to prevent the fire spread, Cloutier said, but the extent of the damage is unclear.

The Home Depot fire, which put off a hefty plume of smoke that could be seen across the South Bay, broke out several hours after another massive blaze erupted Saturday afternoon at an East Bay port, similarly enveloping nearby communities in thick smoke.

At about 2 p.m. Saturday, firefighters responded to a fire at the Port of Benicia. The fire was quickly elevated from a two to a four-alarm fire as it engulfed a long, wooden dock on the Carquinez Strait near the Benicia-Martinez Bridge on Interstate 680. No injuries were reported, according to officials.