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Fire at Former Sobering Center in Santa Cruz Kills One

Several people were in boarded-up building that caught fire

Firefighters battle a blaze at 2:40am Wednesday, Dec. 16, inside the former Sobering Center on Water Street in Santa Cruz. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

UPDATED Dec. 16, 10am

A woman died early Wednesday in a two-alarm fire that broke out in the former Sobering Center in Santa Cruz.

Around 2:30am on Dec. 16, 911 dispatchers received numerous calls about a fire spreading through the two-story Victorian wood building that had been boarded up since the onset of the pandemic. Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin said the center closed shortly after the pandemic began. 

The building was “boarded up for security,” Hoppin said. “People had been entering the building before we did so.”

When the first fire crews arrived, they immediately called for a second alarm, drawing further emergency support from outlying agencies.

As their attack got underway, firefighters were met by several people staggering out of the smoky building into the cold night air.

Santa Cruz Fire Battalion Chief Josh Coleman said firefighters found a person down inside the building and hauled her to safety. Fire radio traffic described a woman who died at the scene. 

It appeared people in the building were illegally trespassing, Coleman said. 

Firefighters staged several attacks, including one on the ground floor where flames could be seen through several windows that had been bashed out by firefighters.

Coleman said the fire was strong enough at one point that firefighters had to back off and go into defensive mode. Firefighters were eventually able to work their way back inside and upstairs, where the flames had crept into the attic. 

Meanwhile, another crew ran a 100-foot aerial ladder over the mountain of smoke for another vantage point with a water stream.

One firefighter was injured and was in stable condition as of 8am, according to Coleman. 

Santa Cruz Police closed off a section of Water Street and portions of Ocean Street.

The former Sobering Center, at 265 Water St., is owned by Santa Cruz County and stands directly in front of the Santa Cruz County Jail. 

Firefighters had to pry off several sheets of plywood to gain access to the building. Officials from Pacific Gas & Electric were called in to shut off power. American Medical Response staged several ambulances for more possible injuries. Sheriff’s deputies were also out in numbers dealing with the incident.

Coleman said 44 firefighters were called to the incident. 

Around 4am, one man approached police at the scene and told them he was inside the building when the fire started and that he had information about the fire.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. 

Meanwhile, as workers arrived between 7 and 8 am at the Santa Cruz County Building and Courthouse across Water Street, they were greeted with a heavy layer of smoke that enveloped the entire building and surrounding grounds throughout the morning. Flames were still visible inside the Sobering Center past 9am, and smoke continued to rise out of the building. A large portion of the roof caved in. Coleman deemed the building a “total loss.”

This story is developing and will be updated. 

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