Cause for 5-alarm Salinas fire narrowed

Fire investigators determined an electrical system at a Salinas historical landmark contributed to the spread of a five-alarm blaze last month.

The Feb. 13 fire at the Dick Bruhn building at 300 Main St. took three days to extinguish and required assistance from other agencies in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, Fire Chief Ed Rodriguez said during a news conference at City Hall Thursday.

The fire caused an estimated $2 million to $3 million in damage to the structure and its contents, and investigators are still tabulating damage costs to the surrounding buildings, Rodriguez said.

The large-scale incident damaged five businesses and closed down the heart of downtown for six days, Rodriguez said.

While many people were “devastated” by the fire, it was a “defining moment” for city employees because it showed the quality of their work, Mayor Joe Gunter said.

Firefighters received help from various city departments including Public Works and outside organizations such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Rodriguez said.

The Dick Bruhn building was a clothing store that had been closed for several years and is owned by Gerry Kehoe, who was given a stop-work order halting construction from the city last year because he didn’t have permits, city spokesman Spencer Critchley said.

While investigators haven’t pinpointed the cause of the blaze, they can’t rule out the electrical system, which appeared to have played “the biggest factor” in the fire, Fire Marshal Sam Klemek said.

Eduardo Gonzales, Kehoe’s employee, was inside the building with his wife, 8-month-old son, brother-in-law, two teenage children, brother-in-law Alejandro Serrato and Serrato’s wife when the fire started, Klemek said.

Serrato was a former employee at the building and familiar with the floor layout, according to Klemek.

Gonzales had keys to the building and entered the dark store through the Main Street entrance around 2:30 p.m. that day, Klemek said.

Gonzales made his way around the main floor to the back of the building where he energized the electrical panels. The group then went upstairs to the second floor to survey the construction work and smelled smoke soon afterward, the fire marshal said.

Gonzales, one of the teens and Serrato went to the mezzanine where they encountered the fire, according to Klemek.

Gonzales went to de-energize the electrical panel, exited the building through the front and immediately called 911. Serrato led everyone else out through the back entrance to Melody Lane, Klemek said.

When the fire broke out, Gonzales dropped the keys that were later recovered in the rubble, Klemek said.

The blaze quickly grew because of the number of combustible items inside in addition to openings on the roof, doors and floors that allowed enough oxygen to enter the structure, according to Klemek.

The fire started on the mezzanine floor and spread to the upper floors, he said.

Investigators were able to figure out the sequence of events with help from Gonzales and Serrato, who were forthcoming with their phone records and accounts of what happened leading up to the fire, Klemek said.

The Kehoe family is working to secure a landfill that will take the regulated waste left by the fire and speed up cleanup efforts, Salinas community development director Megan Hunter said.

If the building is determined to be structurally sound, any future construction work would have to be presented to the city’s Historic Resources Board for consideration, Hunter said.

The Kehoes have indicated that they plan on preserving the historical structure and are cooperating with the city, according to Hunter.