The morning after watching his business destroyed in a spectacular downtown Modesto fire, Craig Stott got out of bed and attacked the day as positively as one could.
“I put on a pair of socks that had the American flag and a blue line stripe on it, looked at my wife and said, ‘Today is a new day. There’s nothing you can do. You have to go at it positively,’ “ said Stott, who with his sister, Tiffani, owns Crescent Work & Outdoor supply store. “My sister and I have always been fighters. Our staff is behind us, our community is behind us. It’s a whole new chapter.”
Late Friday afternoon, a fire that began at a building that houses AJ Batteries and Albert’s Tire & Wheels on I and Eighth streets spread to the south, eventually engulfing Crescent, a well-known retailer which supplies uniforms to the city’s first responders as well as outdoor gear. It first opened in 1946 and has been in the downtown building since 1963.
On Saturday, Jessica Smart, spokeswoman for the Modesto Fire Department, said investigators were in the early stages of trying to determine the cause and, because of the size of the incident, concrete answers could take time.
A firefighter with the Ceres Fire Department suffered an undisclosed injury, but he was back home resting on Saturday, Smart said. No other injuries to firefighters or civilians were reported.
The fire apparently started at the building on 11th and I street and quickly spread. It might have been an ember from nearly a block away that led to the fire at Crescent, which is at the corner of H and Eighth streets. Two other businesses along Eighth that are attached to Crescent to the north — Bad Moon Bail Bonds and Glamorous Upholstery — suffered some damage.
Craig Stott said investigators Saturday shed little light with him as to the cause, and that he’ll wait until the investigation is complete.
“We watched the embers,” he said. “It could have been the back fence line, the telephone poles in the back alley on fire. I don’t understand fire enough to tell you correctly. ... The moment I saw smoke in our building, we went running out.”
Jorge Bustos, whose father owns the building that caught fire, said the blaze began on the I street side of the building in an area that he says usually is vacant.
“We don’t know if somebody on the street threw a match or a cigarette or something,” he said. “We’re not sure.”
He said he hopes there might be cameras from nearby businesses that could offer some answers.
Stott, who broadcast the fire live on his own Facebook page, spent Saturday taking calls from family and friends and working with customers.
Asked if he could put a price tag on the loss, Stott couldn’t.
“To be honest, the last 24 hours has been spent on damage control,” he said. “We have a lot of customers that we owe uniforms to that are graduating. So, taking care of our customers is primary.
“They’ve supported us in this community forever and ever, and we have supported them.”
He said he hopes that relationship continues, whether at the “iconic” downtown spot or somewhere else. The store has about 30 employees.
“We’re going to do whatever we can do (to rebuild),” he said. “We have many meetings coming up. We have to figure out whether it will be at this location ... this would be our goal. But we have to see what’s in store for us going forward.”
The fire started just before 5 p.m., and immediately went to a “General Alarm Fire,” the highest level available, Smart said. At one point, all fire agencies in Stanislaus County were committed to the incident either on scene or providing coverage elsewhere.
A large plume of black smoke was visible throughout downtown and Stanislaus County, drawing a crowd of onlookers. Several spectators watched while eating at the taco trucks along H Street, directly across from the blazes. The heat from the fires could be felt by onlookers across the street.
Crescent was evacuated after employees saw smoke in the area. Stott said about 15 employees were inside and all got out uninjured.
“It’s pretty devastating,” Tiffani Stott said Friday night. “My grandparents started this business. It’s overwhelming to see.”
Crescent employee Shelene Brown said she was working when she smelled smoke. She thought it was a water cooler malfunctioning, but then looked out back and saw smoke billowing from the next-door building.
“It’s unreal. We’re all very close. It’s like we’re family. This is a Modesto institution,” Brown said.
Albert’s Tire & Wheels was destroyed, and only the shell of the structure remained by Saturday morning. Burnt-out cars were visible inside the shop as workers were installing wood paneling over the broken out windows.
The fire closed several blocks of I and H streets during the Friday evening commute and also blocked the Union Pacific Railroad freight line that parallels Eighth Street. More than a dozen fire engines were on scene, including Modesto, Ceres, Turlock and Stanislaus Consolidated. Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst said between 50 to 60 firefighters were fighting the blazes in both buildings.
Modesto fire said at about 9:30 p.m. Friday that the fire had been contained. Crews were on scene Saturday morning working on hot spots.
“Fortunately, we’re very blessed,” Craig Stott said. “We have several other buildings to the south and to the north that didn’t get burned down.”