CONCORD -- Serena Rangel stood shivering in the cold, a sweatshirt, jeans, jacket and coffee the only things keeping her warm in the hazy stench and 31-degree weather. She stared forlornly across the street at her place of employment and wondered aloud about the future.
"The thing is, I was here right after it started," she said. "And it didn't look that bad."
A massive four-alarm blaze at a warehouse near Buchanan Field early Wednesday proved much worse than it may have initially looked. No injuries were reported, but a telecommunications warehouse/office building was destroyed, embers smoldered for hours and billowed smoke above downtown Concord, and a health advisory was called.
The warehouse, owned by All Phone Co., a business that sells and installs business phones, was left severely damaged, and its employees were unsure of their futures.
"There's a lot of stuff from the last 10 years stored in computers, not to mention all the bills and other work stuff," said Rangel, a Martinez resident. "Nobody knows what's going to happen now."
The fire was reported at 12:23 a.m., according to Capt. Robert Marshall of the Contra Costa Fire District, but when fire crews arrived, they let the building burn because it was in danger of collapsing. Eventually, part of the structure did fall, keeping crews from bringing the blaze under control until 2:30 a.m., Marshall said.
The fire was not declared extinguished until about nine hours later.
The Contra Costa Health Department issued a health advisory just after 8:30 a.m., warning residents within a half-mile of the fire to stay indoors; that advisory was lifted at 11:30 a.m. Fire officials also ordered the evacuation of a kidney dialysis treatment center near Concord Avenue, and the office remained closed all day.
"It was in the direct path of the smoke, so we asked them to evacuate, and they cooperated," Marshall said. "The thinking was that we didn't want to expose people who already have health issues to another potential problem."
Adding to the concern over the smoke, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District already had deemed Wednesday a Spare the Air day. The fourth straight such day -- on Thursday, a record fifth will be in place -- came because air conditions during the cold spell make it difficult for elements in the air to move around.
"We did have a little spike in the pollution in Oakland early in the morning," air district spokesman Tom Flannigan said. "But (in the afternoon), it went back down to what we expected to be normal for the day."
Several homeless people have been known to congregate in the area, and employees said they've set off the burglar alarm several times, but Marshall said nobody was found inside or near the building.
The presence of 15- to 17-feet-high storage racks put the building in danger of collapse, causing crews to delay entering the building.
Once the portion that was in danger of collapse fell, "We decided it was better to let it burn to a point where we could enter the building knowing our crews were safe," Marshall said. "There were no cars in the parking lot and nothing to indicate anybody was inside."
Marshall said the cause of the fire and its origin were under investigation but that it was too soon to call the fire suspicious. He said crews likely will need at least a day or two to make any inroads because of the sheer size and damage to the building. A monetary figure for the damage was not given.
The fire did not affect any flights at Buchanan Field, Contra Costa Airports Director Keith Freitas said. Runway 32, one of two main runways at the airport, is close enough to be seen from areas of Stanwell Drive.
Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789, and follow him at Twitter.com/3rderh.