It’s not every day that a major building in San Jose becomes consumed by a raging inferno, sending up dark clouds of smoke that can be seen for miles, forcing hundreds of people to flee for safety and captivating the nation’s attention.

So when a Home Depot store in South San Jose quickly burst aflame last weekend, many residents were reminded of one of the city’s last calamitous structure fires: the 2002 Santana Row blaze.

While San Jose has experienced a multitude of other massive infernos in the past two decades — including a 2010 blaze that burned most of Merritt Trace Elementary School to the ground and a 2014 five-alarm fire that destroyed a 120,000-square-foot warehouse — Santana Row remains the worst in San Jose history, ingrained in the minds of many residents.

This aerial photo shows a multi-alarm fire burning through Santana Row, a nearly $1 billion retail, commercial and residential development, designed to become an upscale destination for people from all over sprawling Silicon Valley, Monday, Aug. 19, 2002, in San Jose, Calif. 

In some ways — from the building types to the size and breadth of destruction — the Santana Row and Home Depot fires are quite different. But stories told by residents feature sobering similarities.

In both cases, San Jose residents scaled their neighbors’ roofs to put out flames, and observed embers the size of dinner plates fall from the sky blocks away from the fires’ origins. They gathered under clear, blue skies to watch as a part of their community dissipated before their eyes.

Videos and photos of the five-alarm fire that broke out at about 5:30 p.m. on April 9 in the lumber section of the Home Depot at 920 Blossom Hill Road went viral on social media. The intense flames, which were detected by orbiting satellites, leveled the store at an alarming speed. It took at least 100 firefighters from 30 units to contain the blaze and prevent flames — sparked by a mix of lumber, paint and an array of other flammable products inside the store — from destroying neighboring homes and businesses.

San Jose fire investigators were still working Wednesday to determine the cause of the fire, including whether it was intentionally set. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive is now assisting in the investigation.

Facilities like Home Depot should be inspected annually to ensure that a buildings’ sprinkler systems, water pipes and other fire protection systems are up-to-date, according to the city’s fire code. The fire department last inspected this Home Depot store — which was built in 1977 and measures 97,000 square feet — on Oct. 5, 2021, and inspectors did not find any code violations at that time, according to San Jose Fire spokesperson Erica Ray.

Still, customers and employees who were at the Home Depot when the flames erupted have questioned why the store’s fire alarms reportedly did not sound until nearly everyone was outside of the building — and whether the store’s sprinklers ever went off.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 10: The Home Depot store on Blossom Hill Road was destroyed by fire in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

The Santana Row fire, by comparison, erupted at 3:36 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 19, 2002, at a building that covered approximately six acres — or more than four football fields — in the then-under-construction shopping development.

The fire went up to 11 alarms, forcing the city’s fire department to seek help outside of Santa Clara County for the first time. More than 200 firefighters and 70 trucks, engines and other vehicles — or about double that used for the Home Depot fire — were called in to assist. Like the Home Depot fire, there were no deaths nor major injuries reported in the Santana Row blaze.

“It was just a horrible, horrible time because we were climbing out of a recession and that was a bright star,” said Nanci Klein, director of San Jose’s Economic Development Office, who added that it set construction of the development back approximately two years.

During the investigation into the cause of the destructive 2002 blaze, fire investigators pursued two primary possibilities — that it was caused accidentally by some kind of heat work being done as part of the construction activities or that it was intentionally set. Investigators were never able to make a final determination.

Former San Jose residents Ken and Jane Pyle, who lived about a half-mile south of Santana Row on the other side of Interstate 280, still remember a neighbor grabbing a ladder and climbing on top of their home to stomp out three spots where their roof had begun to burn.

“We were just lucky,” Ken Pyle said in an interview Wednesday. “If no one had been home, odds are that it would have burnt down.”

Burning fire at Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., Monday afternoon, Aug. 19, 2002. The cause of the six alarm fire at the nearly one billion dollar retail, commerial and residental complex is unknown. No injuries have been reported. 

Nearly two decades later, 17-year-old Oscar Pack, who lives just behind Home Depot on El Lisa Drive, jumped into action and too grabbed a hose to extinguish embers on his neighbor’s roof.

“It was pretty scary because it was huge,” Pack said about the fire at the nearby home improvement store.

The Santana Row fire caused more than $100 million in damage to the development. But dozens of residents felt a far greater loss from fiery embers that rained down on nearby homes and apartments.

More than 30 apartments and townhouses in the Moorpark neighborhood were also destroyed by subsequent fires lit by fiery embers that traveled more than a half-mile away from Santana Row and ignited rooftops, causing an additional $2.5 million in damage.

In the case of the Home Depot fire, the department has not reported that any other businesses or homes were destroyed by the falling embers, though some did sustain damage to their roofs and backyard fences due to the firefighting efforts and falling embers. During the firefight, Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office helicopter spotted two fires nearby and reported them to crews on the ground, but the fire department has not yet said whether they were connected to the main blaze at Home Depot.

“That was the most tragic thing about the Santana Row fire — the people who lived in the apartments and didn’t have renters’ insurance and lost everything,” Ken Pyle said.

After the Santana Row fire, the city’s fire department faced backlash for how it responded to the subsequent fires that erupted in the Moorpark neighborhood, as reports by this news organization found that firefighters were repeatedly turned down when calling for backup. But in the two decades since then, the department has made a slew of changes and updates to its mutual aid and emergency communication systems in order to better handle major incidents.

Still, issues persist. The San Jose Fire Department, which was already one of the leanest big-city fire agencies in the nation when the Santana Row fire erupted, is even leaner today — even as the number of calls firefighters are asked to respond to has nearly doubled. Although that doesn’t mean the city cannot handle a major inferno like that of Home Depot, Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, said it does make it more difficult to respond to other emergencies that might happen simultaneously.

“The efforts of our firefighters were nothing short of heroic,” Tuttle said. “… But yet again our firefighters continue to do more with less on a regular basis.”

Staff writer Summer Lin contributed to this story. 

SAN JOSE CALIFORNIA – APRIL 9: San Jose City Fire Department firefighters work on a fire outside of Home Depot off Blossom Hill Road in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 
SAN JOSE CALIFORNIA – APRIL 9: San Jose City Fire Department firefighters work on a fire outside of Home Depot off Blossom Hill Road in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)