Firefighters rushed to a vacant meat market in Escondido Thursday after flames ripped through the building, sending heavy smoke into the air visible from multiple freeways in San Diego's North County.
Escondido Fire Department (EFD) Sgt. Fred Cheatham said the fast-moving blaze sparked just before 9 a.m. at Talone's Meat Market in the 500 block of North Hale Avenue.
Quickly, the flames fully engulfed the old, dilapidated building. When firefighters arrived at 8:58 a.m., the flames were shooting through the roof.
NBC 7 viewers said plumes of heavy, dark smoke filled the air, seen by many motorists along the I-15 and State Route 78 near Nordahl Road.
EFD Fire Chief Russ Knowles said the blaze had caused part of the building's roof to cave in, so crews went into defensive mode, meaning they aggressively fought the fire from the outside since it was not safe to enter the building.
Knowles said the fire was then upgraded to a four-alarm response. Eventually, firefighters gained the upper-hand, but thick smoke lingered.
According to Escondido residents and fire officials, Talone's Meat Market has long been abandoned. Some residents said transients are known to frequent the building.
NBC 7 spoke with Mark Robertson, who works at Pauley Equipment Rental located across the street from the site of the fire. He said he witnessed the flames shooting from Talone's Meat Market. Robertson said he saw two people running out of the building, one woman yelling that her husband was still inside.
He said another man was frantically banging on the door as the fire raged on. That man couldn't get in and the roof collapsed, Robertson said.
EFD spokesman Jeff Murdock said several transients were reportedly seen near the building when the fire broke out.
"We did have initial reports when we arrived that there may be four people trapped inside. Those are unconfirmed reports," Murdock said.
For hours, officials scoured the perimeter of the building in search of those people. As of 3 p.m., Murdock said all four transients spotted near the market were accounted for but officials had not yet been able to determine if anyone else was inside the building.
Knowles said safely sifting through the remains of the building would be a "slow, tedious operation."
Murdock said the building was structurally unsound and, more than six hours later, firefighters were still no able to safely enter the building.
Officials blocked off access to several roads in the area due to the blaze. This included the I-15 HOV exit at Hale Avenue, Washington and Metcalf Street at Mission Avenue, Washington at Mission Avenue and Tulip at Hale.
Motorists were advised to avoid the area due to the road closures.
Knowles said firefighters planned to remain at the scene for the next five hours, into evening, mopping up hot spots and gathering evidence.
Murdock said firefighters were concerned about the integrity of the structure and were working to prevent the building from collapsing any further.
"We're worried about the building collapsing due to how far the fire penetrated the roof," he explained.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
As of 3 p.m., crews were still spraying water on the building. Murdock said EFD crews would likely be working at the scene through the night.
Knowles said that, among the challenges of this fire, are the location and odd layout of the vacant building.
The approximately 10,000-square-foot building sits right underneath power lines and practically on top of the train tracks that run through the area.
Due to the location of the fire, the North County Transit District (NCTD) temporarily shut down Sprinter Light Rail train service between the Escondido Transit Center and the Nordahl Station.
The NCTD said Sprinter riders could expect 20-minute delays in service. The NCTD will provide bus services for customers between those two stations while Sprinter service is delayed.
Sprinter train service had fully resumed by 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, the EFD said San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has also shut down power in the area as a precaution due to the fire's proximity to power lines.
As of 11:30 a.m., this power outage was affecting businesses located on Hale Avenue between Metcalf Street and Auto Park Way, and from Hale Avenue south to Valley Parkway.
NBC 7 spoke with Larry Julien, a transient in the area who said he's been inside the building that was destroyed by the fire. He said several homeless people have been using the vacant building as a shelter.
The Escondido Police Department (EPD) confirmed that, since April, there have been extra patrols around the abandoned building. This past Monday, the police department received a report of someone trespassing at the building but when officers arrived at the property, they did not find any trespassers.
The EPD said the property management company that owns the building had asked police for help managing the homeless problem at Talone's Meat Market. The property management company said it planned to demolish the building in the next few months.