Cause of Midtown fire proves elusive

The dryers at AJ’s Dry Cleaners after the Feb. 2 fire that destroyed the Midtown Shopping Center in Palo Alto. Photo from a fire inspection report.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Firefighters have been unable to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed four businesses in the Midtown Shopping Center of Palo Alto.

The burn pattern points to a room full of dryers in the back corner of AJ’s Dry Cleaners, but “extreme” fire damage made the investigation difficult, according to a report by fire inspector Brent White.

The owner of AJ’s Dry Cleaners told White that he left his business on Feb. 2 at 10:30 p.m., and three dryers were set had 45 minutes left on their cycle.

A passerby called police at 11:10 p.m. to report an orange glow and “popping” noises coming from inside the building, Battalion Chief Ryan Stoddard said. The laundry was engulfed by the time engines arrived, and 20-foot flames were shooting from the roof, he said.

Fire jumped to attic

The fire spread through the attic of the building at 3175 Middlefield Road while firefighters hosed it down from ladders.

Bill’s Cafe, Philz Coffee and Palo Alto Fine Wine & Spirits took smoke and heat damage.
The strip mall building hasn’t been rebuilt, and all four businesses remain closed.

The property is owned by Robert and Lenore Cavallero of Hillsborough, according to the Santa Clara County Assessor.

Firefighters had to inspect the building quickly because they were worried about it collapsing and toxic chemicals in the air, White said.

“It was not possible to determine first ignited material or any failures of machinery or electrical that would identify a specific cause or specific origin,” he wrote in his report, which the Post obtained from the city using the California Public Records Act.

Other theories

The fire could’ve started from a fluorescent light that was installed above the dryers the week before, White said. Wires ran from the light to electrical boxes outside of the wall and ceiling, White said.

Another hypothesis is that someone started the fire because he or she could financially benefit. White said he asked insurance investigators whether AJ’s Dry Cleaners had a financial motive, and he hadn’t heard back by the time he turned in his report on Aug. 15.
There was no evidence that showed a “deliberately ignited, hostile fire,” White said.