COLUMBIA — A plume of dark smoke that smelled like burning rubber, oil and plastic rose above a Business Loop strip mall Sunday morning.
Firefighters battled the multiple-alarm fire throughout the day, and by the afternoon, what was once O'Reilly Auto Parts was a pile of rubble, with the rest of the mall, located at 106 Business Loop 70 W., heavily damaged. The fire closed sections of Business Loop and Garth Avenue.
Columbia Fire Department Fire Marshal Steven Sapp said the first call came in at 4:45 Sunday morning. A second alarm followed 15 minutes later. Eleven units and 35 staff members from the department responded.
There were no smoke alarms and no sprinkler system in the building, Assistant Fire Marshal Debbie Sorrell said.
The fire "got such a big jump on us," she said.
As fire crews removed more sections of the building in the afternoon, small fires were found in flat sections of the metal roof. Heavy HVAC units were still on the roof at the far end of the building and an excavator removed damaged sections of the mall. Knocking down this type of fire is "a slow and tedious process," Sorrell said.
The fire was declared under control shortly after 3 p.m. It caused several road closures in the area, according to the release, including:
- Business Loop 70 between Parkade Boulevard and Garth Avenue in both directions.
- Garth Avenue south of Business Loop 70 to Fourth Avenue.
- Jefferson Street between Forest Avenue and Business Loop 70.
Very preliminary damage estimates are placed at $2.5 million for the building and $4 million for the loss of inventory, according to the release. These numbers will be adjusted as the investigation continues.
Sapp said the materials burning inside the auto parts store included petroleum, cardboard and plastic. Sorrell said oil and brake fluid acted as fuel for the fire, which began on the building's north side, according to the release.
The businesses in the strip mall included O'Reilly Auto Parts, Sami's Beauty Supply, Adam's Barber Shop, Hong Kong Restaurant and Dollar General. Hong Kong Restaurant was robbed Wednesday.
All businesses were closed when the fire began and there have been no injuries, Sapp said.
Sapp said the last "multiple alarm" fire, in which a second alarm is called in and more units respond, was about three years ago.
"It's been a tough fire," he said.
Water from fire hoses flooded the mall's parking lot and flowed down Garth Avenue during the morning.
Environmental specialists from the city's Public Works Department were contacted to assess possible damage to the stormwater system, Sapp said. By the afternoon, water tests from Flat Branch Creek came back neutral, showing no sign of contamination, Sorrell said.
Standing by and watching the blaze in the morning were Kevin Schnepf, the manager of the mall's O'Reilly Auto Parts, and Chris Meade, district manager for all the O'Reilly stores in the area. They had been at the scene since about 6 a.m., along with other employees.
Word of the fire traveled to employees quickly, Schnepf said. The store was scheduled to open at 9 a.m.
Other business owners from the strip mall have visited the scene, Sorrell said.
"All of our team members will still be employed," Meade said. Some employees scheduled to work were on duty Sunday at other locations, he said.
A new O'Reilly Auto Parts was scheduled to open in about 30 days, but it could open sooner now that this one has burned down, Meade said. The strip mall was built about 50 t0 60 years ago, Sapp said, and was originally a grocery store.
The cause of the fire is still unknown. Investigating the fire will take time, Sorrell said, because of the amount of damage and the time it takes to control the burn.
Firefighters will remain on the scene Sunday night for several hours. As of 5:30 p.m., two companies were tackling areas that were still smoldering, according to the release. Real Estate Management Inc., the owner of the property, will also have private security on the scene until the property is secured.