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Calif. firefighters rescue squatters during fire in nearly 100-year-old building

The Harris building in San Bernardino County has holes in the floors, damaged stairwells and open elevator shafts

By Brian Rokos
San Bernardino County Sun

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. — The fourth floor of the historic Harris department store building in downtown San Bernardino erupted in flames on Monday, July 8, forcing firefighters to pull homeless people out of the nearly 100-year-old abandoned structure.

No injuries to civilians or firefighters had been reported as of 4 p.m., said Eric Sherwin, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. Some 75 firefighters were on the scene.

The four-story building is at 300 N. E Street, where it has survived the wrecking ball that has otherwise demolished the Carousel Mall as city officials attempt to redevelop the area just east of the 215 Freeway.

The fire was reported around 1:45 p.m. and had been confined to the top floor.

“Up to an hour into this incident, we continue to find people inside the building,” Sherwin said.

Monday’s firefight was proving challenging for several reasons. The concrete walls trapped the heat inside, causing the temperature to rise to 150 degrees, Sherwin said. Its current occupants pulled down some of the wooden construction and brought debris into the building as well. Some of the escalators are missing steps, and there are holes in the floor.

Firefighters had to abandon their efforts to cut ventilation holes in the roof when it began to collapse, Sherwin said.

“It is a large building that has fallen victim to a lack of maintenance, lack of use. It forces us to approach this at a very measured pace,” he said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The business opened to fanfare in 1927, with The Sun declaring, “Towns do not have department stores. The Inland Empire has arrived.”

In 1947 the store gained the Inland Empire’s first escalator, originally dubbed a “motorstair.”

It shuttered in 1999, five years after Norton Air Force Base closed.

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