Ashok Kumar spent 15 years establishing his India Warehouse store, attracting customers to the Yosemite Boulevard business in Modesto. It’s now all gone.
Tuesday night, a three-alarm fire gutted the store, collapsing the roof, destroying the rear wall and charring its inventory of merchandise.
“There’s nothing left,” Kumar said with a dejected tone as he stood outside the store Wednesday morning, surveying the burned remains of his business from the parking lot.
He says he didn’t have any fire insurance, so it’s unlikely he can try to reopen the store at another location. He said he would need about $100,000 to start his business over.
“I don’t have any money,” Kumar said. “It’s not easy to open a business.”
Fire officials say the blaze appeared to have started directly behind Kumar’s store and the flames spread into the business. Investigators on Wednesday afternoon had not determined the cause of the fire.
The fire was reported about 7:40 p.m. at the store in the El Vista shopping center in the 2000 block of Yosemite.
Honni Lazar, who owns the nearby Luckysuds Laundromat, said he was at his business when the fire started. He said his cousin smelled smoke, and that they spotted the large flames coming from a homeless man’s tent behind the store.
“A homeless guy had been living there,” Lazar said. “His tent just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
He said the homeless man had been living in the alley for a few months. The laundromat owner called 911 immediately and watched as the flames stretched toward utility lines overhead.
Cherice Bentley saw the fire from her mother-in-law’s home on the north side of an alley behind the India Warehouse store. The flames had engulfed the makeshift tent, which was made up of a few large tarps within a fenced area behind the store. She also called 911.
Bentley was worried that the homeless man living underneath the tarps was inside as the fire burned, but she later discovered that he had been sweeping at a nearby bar at the time. Bentley said the man, in his 60s, would do odd jobs for the businesses to earn enough cash to make it through the day.
She knew the man’s name but declined to reveal his identity; she was worried about the ongoing investigation into the fire. Bentley said the homeless man was a diabetic, and he was diagnosed with cancer and was receiving chemotherapy.
She said man was well known by his nickname, “Pops,” to business owners at the strip mall and to nearby residents. Bentley said the homeless man had been living in the makeshift tent for about a year, and that neighbors often would give him clothing and food to get by.
Kumar said he was familiar with the homeless man, who would clean the areas outside the businesses at the strip mall. He said the man was living behind the business on the west side of his store for months before he recently moved to the area directly behind the barbershop on the east side of his store. Kumar said he wasn’t aware anyone was living directly behind his business.
Bentley said she spotted the homeless man as crowds gathered Tuesday night to watch firefighters tackle the blaze. She said the man was in tears, knowing all his belongings were destroyed by the fire.
Craig Davis, an investigator with the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, surveyed the gutted store Wednesday morning and spoke with nearby business owners. He said the fire appeared to have started directly behind India Warehouse.
Davis said he couldn’t comment about what circumstances might have led to the fire. He said no arrests had been made and no citations had been issued in connection with it.
Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said the first firefighters to arrive at the strip mall found the flames in the back of the building. The firefighters immediately called for additional engines, and the blaze soon was upgraded to three alarms.
Patino said downed power lines had electrified a chain-link fence behind the businesses and a natural gas main had failed, so the firefighters were not able to attack the fire from the alley.
Instead, the firefighters launched an attack through the store’s front entrance. But when the roof showed signs of collapsing, the firefighters were ordered out of the store to take a defensive stance, Patino said.
He said low water pressure in the neighborhood initially created some difficulty for firefighters trying to put out the fire. But fire officials contacted city public works officials, who later boosted the water pressure.
Windy weather Tuesday night increased the volatility of the blaze, Patino said, but the firefighters ultimately stopped the flames from spreading into nearby businesses.
The fire sent flames and thick clouds of smoke into the air, affecting traffic. The fire drew crowds of people, and westbound traffic was shut down.
The structure of the building helped to stop the fire’s spread. Patino said the suites at the strip mall were independently built, so the businesses are separated by two cinder-block walls. Next to Kumar’s store sits Gordo’s Pool City, along with a barber shop, Lazar’s laundromat and other small businesses.
“We were fortunate to contain this fire to the building of origin,” Patino said.
He said the firefighters waited about 40 minutes for Modesto Irrigation District officials to shut down the power so they could attack the blaze from behind the business. The firefighters had the blaze under control about 90 minutes after it was first reported.
In all, 46 firefighters helped to put out the blaze. Firefighters from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District assisted in extinguishing it.
Fire damage was limited to the India Warehouse store, but the smell of smoke was widespread throughout nearby businesses. Firefighters had placed tarps on the furniture inside the businesses next to the store to limit water damage.
Kumar said it didn’t appear that any of his store’s merchandise was salvageable. He sold many items commonly sold at a general store, but his place was known for selling goods from India. He sold Indian flour, oils and jewelry, among other items.
He leased the location of the store. Fire officials said the property did have insurance to cover the fire damage, but investigators had not determined the cost of the damage to the building or its contents.
Kumar also owns a hair salon at the same strip mall; it was not damaged by the fire. The salon will stay open, he said, but his India Warehouse store looks as though it’s closed for good.