Overnight Fresno fires at recycling plant, downtown jewelry store, Helm Building

The Fresno BeeJune 3, 2014 

Fresno firefighters were busy Tuesday battling three blazes, one at a south Fresno recycling plant and two on the Fulton Mall, including a blaze that destroyed a longtime jewelry store.

A blaze that broke out in a basement at the Helm Building was set by an arsonist and could have been devastating if an open gas line had ignited and if the building had lacked a sprinkler system, Fresno Fire Department spokesman Koby Johns said.

The fires came within weeks of two other devastating blazes in downtown Fresno that destroyed the Del Monte packing building and the Ace Tire building, leading to some speculation that a serial arsonist may be at work, Johns said.

Although it's a possibility, the investigations so far have not provided information to support that, he said.

The cause of the Procter's Jewelers and Bairos fires and the amount of damages in all three were still under investigation Tuesday, fire officials said.

Johns said that nearly 100 firefighters were called out to fight the fires. At one point, he said, every engine and truck company in the city was committed to an incident. Fresno County Fire and Clovis Fire department firefighters were assisting.

Proactive firefighting also appeared to limit damages, Johns said. When fire erupted at the south Fresno location, fire units from northern stations were shifted to the city's center and were available to fight the two downtown fires.

The first fire broke out at the Helm Building, 1111 Fulton Mall, and was reported at 11:40 p.m. Monday. Arriving firefighters found that the building's fire sprinkler system had activated in the basement, Johns said. Once the smoke was removed the fire crew found evidence of three separate extinguished fires and a gas line that was severed from its connectors and left in the "on" position.

Johns said it was extremely fortunate that the Helm Building had a working fire sprinkler system. Otherwise, the building might have shared the fate of the Del Monte and Ace Tire buildings. He said that it appeared that the firebug opened the gas line.

The south Fresno fire erupted just before 1 a.m. Tuesday at Bairos Recycling on Orange Avenue just southwest of the Jensen Avenue-Golden State Boulevard intersection. The fire in huge paper bundles was still burning at 7 a.m., with firefighters attacking it with aerial hoses. Smoke was wafting over nearby Highway 99.

By 9 a.m., Johns said crews were focused on suppression by pulling the bales of material apart with heavy machinery and spraying them with water -- a tedious process, Johns said.

Johns said the Bairos fire grew to four alarms and at one point had 20 companies (about 65 firefighters) on scene. Battalion Chief Charles Tobias said the first crews were on scene within five minutes with a full force working in just under 10 minutes.

The Bairos plant was the site of a fire in June 2003 that took six days to extinguish. Tuesday evening, four engines and three trucks were assigned to the fire, and three engines and one truck were to remain overnight, Battalion Chief Lawrence French said.

A third fire was reported about 1 a.m. Tuesday at Procter's Jewelers, 1201 Fulton Mall. That blaze forced police to close Fresno Street between Broadway Street and Van Ness Avenue.

French said the showroom and a supply/inventory area near the showroom burned. Fire crews were busy Tuesday morning pumping water out of the basement, which was completely flooded.

Johns said it appears the fire caused a total loss of the family owned business that had been on the mall since 1945. Brent Weiner, grandson of the store's founder Irwin J. Weiner, said it was too soon to decide how the company would move forward.

When the store opened in October 1945 it was distinctive for its "modern decorative ideas," including a hanging display case that filled one side of the Fulton entrance.

The Weiner family has been active in downtown ever since. Brent Weiner was 2012 chairman of the Downtown Fresno Partnership board.

Staff writer Barbara Anderson contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6339, jguy@fresnobee.com or @jimguy27 on Twitter.

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