Dozens of Salt Lake City fire crews descended on a massive blaze at an unoccupied, under-construction building in Sugar House late Tuesday that was still burning Wednesday afternoon.
The fire first ignited sometime around 11 p.m. Tuesday at the site of the planned Residences at Sugar Alley, located at 2188 Highland Drive, according to Salt Lake City fire. No injuries were reported in the blaze.
By Wednesday afternoon, large flames were still visible as crews continued firefighting efforts. Chunks of ash and charred material dotted sidewalks as far as a mile away, while smoke choked surrounding shopping centers.
The largely gutted building faced demolition beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Salt Lake City Fire Department later announced. Officials expected the planned demolition of the fire-affected structure to continue into the evening.
Nearby residents with respiratory concerns should consider relocating from the area, or wear an N95 or better quality mask if they choose to remain near the scene, fire officials said. Area residents should also ensure all windows and doors are closed until smoke subsides.
Any evacuated, neighboring residents who need current information or assistance with overnight shelter should contact the American Red Cross at 800-733-2767.
Capt. Tony Stowe said crews believed no one was inside the building when the fire first ignited late Tuesday. The structure’s exposed construction materials and resulting open airflow rapidly fed flames, making for a “very active” fire, he said.
About 70 fire personnel initially responded to the massive blaze before midnight Tuesday, including three ladder trucks, Stowe said.
At the time, those ladder units were working in sync to shoot water up to 110 feet in the air, aimed at flames that could be seen spitting out from the building’s top floors, according to footage released late Tuesday by the department. Salt Lake City police soon responded to assist fire crews in securing the scene.
Portions of the burning building had begun internally collapsing by about 3 a.m. Wednesday, Stowe said. Crews continued to fight flames from the perimeter of the property into Wednesday afternoon due to the ongoing threat of scaffolding collapse.
Just before 4 p.m., fire officials announced the planned evening demolition.
Hundreds of neighboring residents evacuated
As a precaution, Salt Lake City fire crews began evacuating hundreds of people from adjacent residential buildings at about midnight Tuesday as the “high-danger” Sugar House blaze continued to burn, Stowe said.
The American Red Cross of Utah provided shelter, food and water to more than 200 people at a temporary evacuation site at the Forest Dale Golf Course. As of Wednesday, the evacuation site was moved to a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse at 2005 S. 900 East, which would remain open to displaced residents overnight Wednesday, officials advised.
Among the approximately 300 neighboring residents who were directed outside by 1 a.m. Wednesday was Amanda Lee, an assistant professor of printmaking at Utah State University. The 45-year-old lives in the Sugarmont complex immediately south of the blaze and safely evacuated with her cat and one bag in hand, she said.
Lee happened to be awake when the fire started, she told The Salt Lake Tribune. Her first sign of the soon-to-balloon blaze: Fire truck sirens.
At 11:11 p.m., she posted a photo of the fire on Twitter. At the time, from the vantage point of her neighboring apartment, smoke could be seen pouring out from the opposing structure — but no flames. A fire department vehicle could be seen stationed on the ground below.
Over the next 30 minutes, in subsequent Twitter posts, Lee shared video of the growing fire, in which crews could be seen attempting to douse the now-clearly visible flames with water.
Police soon came to her door, ordering Lee and others on her floor to evacuate, she said. By about 12:50 a.m., she was outside and OK, but noted that embers could be seen falling in the area “even a few blocks away.”
She remained concerned much of Wednesday about her apartment, located so close to the large fire. As of early Wednesday evening, there was no indication that the still-burning blaze had spread to any neighboring buildings, including the Sugarmont complex, Stowe said.
“The crews have done a great job of preventing any extension of that fire,” he said.
Stowe noted Wednesday afternoon that at least one nearby evacuated building — The Vue at Sugar House Crossing, located just north of the blaze — had sustained some exterior damage due to its proximity to ongoing firefighting efforts.
Some evacuated Sugarmont and Vue residents should expect to remain displaced overnight until demolition and firefighting operations subside, fire officials advised Wednesday afternoon. Lee said she was able to retrieve some of her belongings from her Sugarmont unit by about 1 p.m. Wednesday but was not permitted to stay in the building.
Residents of those buildings should meet with their property managers or surrounding SLCPD officers if they need to retrieve personal belongings, officials said.
Fire debris reaches wide radius; scene shut down to traffic
Debris from the overnight fire had floated into the yards and streets of Sugar House residents as far as a mile from the scene by sunrise Wednesday.
Chief Karl Lieb with the Salt Lake City Fire Department said it wasn’t unusual for embers to reach such a wide radius, given the size of the blaze.
If community members find debris on their property, they should wear an N95 or better quality mask and gloves to dispose of it, fire officials advised, or sweep it up, Lieb said. Debris and ash should be soaked with water to ensure it does not pose further fire risk before it is thrown away.
“Refrain from touching it or breathing it very closely,” Lieb said in a video that Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall shared on Twitter early Wednesday.
Traffic and pedestrian walkways south of the intersection of Highland Drive and 2100 South remained shut down Wednesday afternoon as crews continued to fight the fire amid planned evening demolition.
The nearby Sprague branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, located at 2131 S. 1100 East, also was closed Wednesday due to the fire. The branch was not damaged by flames, but it was affected by smoke in the immediate area, library officials said. It’s unclear if the branch will reopen Thursday.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, but federal authorities are assisting the Salt Lake City Fire Department in its investigation, Stowe said.
A damage estimate was not immediately available. Property records show the uncompleted structure was already valued at more than $12 million as of this year.