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Lenz Arts damaged by fire (March 17, 2002)
JEANENE HARLICK - Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ — A 34-year-old downtown business was seriously damaged Saturday morning when a fire started under Lenz Arts and worked its way into the building’s walls.

Andrew Lenz, whose father opened the art-supply store in 1972, said the family has no fire insurance but will repair the estimated $75,000 in damages and reopen "as soon as humanly possible." The family met with a contractor Saturday afternoon.

"I’ve grown up working in this building, and to watch it almost going up (in flames) is very scary," said Lenz, who was at the River Street store when the fire erupted around 11 a.m.

An employee saw flames darting from underneath the building, and yelled to co-workers.

Twenty-eight firefighters arrived within minutes, coming from the Santa Cruz, Central, Scotts Valley and Aptos-La Selva departments. Eight crews responded to the two-alarm blaze.

Andrew watching flames
Andrew looks on as the SCFD accesses the fire.
[Unpublished photo taken by Lenz Arts staff]

Lenz guessed the building to be about 80 years old, which made fighting the fire difficult. Redwood bark insulating the interior walls kept firefighters there throughout the day and into the evening, said Matt McCaslin, Santa Cruz battalion chief.

Fire Trucks
Local firefighters prepare to put out the fire.
[Unpublished photo taken by Lenz Arts staff]

"It tends to hold sparks," he said. "Typically what will happen is we’ll have smoldering spots pop up hours later. We have the arduous job of removing all that material."

Most of the damage was structural, he said. It included two large holes firefighters cut into the side of the building to ventilate the fire and gain access to the crawl space where it started.

Firefighters cutting mural
Firefighters cut into the wall to access the fire.
[Unpublished photo taken by Lenz Arts staff]

Lenz and his father, Andy Lenz Sr., weren’t thrilled as they watched firefighters pull out the power saws. All the same, they were thankful.
"I’m just absolutely happy it happened during the day," Lenz Sr. said.

"If it happened at night ... ," Lenz Jr. said.

"We’d be looking at dirt," his father finished.

Inside, much of the damage was restricted to one room, where the floor was torn up to access the fire. The store also lost about $5,000 in supplies, Andrew Lenz said.

The good news was that none of the art work customers had dropped off at the business, which also offers framing, was damaged, Lenz said.

"It’s in perfect condition because it was in the back of the building away from the fire," he said.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but Andrew Lenz said the inspector told him that a gas meter may have failed. He also offered his own theory.

He said he had recently seen some bedrolls beneath the building, possibly left by some homeless people.

"Apparently some transients squeezed past the gas main and got (under the building)," he said. "Maybe they started a little barbecue or something."

He said he was terrified when the fire broke out. He immediately evacuated the half-dozen employees, then tried to douse the outside flames with a fire extinguisher.

The store, which also offers framing services, opened in 1968 on Pacific Avenue, and moved to its current spot in 1972. It is popular among artists and craftspeople.

There were no customers in the store at the time of the fire.

The fire forced police to close River Street in front of the store throughout the day, sending traffic down Water Street and North Pacific Avenue.

City Editor Marc DesJardins contributed to this article.

[There are a few inaccuracies in the above article. We had about half a dozen customers in the store at the time of the fire. Also someone off the street ran in and told us of the fire. Santa Cruz Sentinel article republished by permission.]