About an hour before the Oak at Fourteenth restaurant was scheduled to open Wednesday morning, a sous chef saw flames shooting out of a chimney flue, according to the restaurant owner.

About 15 staff members hurried to exit the Tanner Building that houses the 3-month-old restaurant at 14th and Pearl streets, and the chef called 911.

Within minutes, every firefighter in Boulder was battling the blaze that had erupted in a "false" ceiling of the restaurant, and dozens of onlookers who had been strolling the Pearl Street Mall were lining 14th Street and watching smoke billow into the sky. The pedestrian mall was blocked off between 14th and 15th streets for several hours.

Bryan Dayton, co-owner of the Oak at Fourteenth, said he doesn't know how the fire started in his restaurant.

"I imagine there will be significant damage," he said. "It's definitely heartbreaking."

No one was hurt in the blaze.

Firefighters work on the roof of the Tanner Building in downtown Boulder as they fight a fire Wednesday morning.
Firefighters work on the roof of the Tanner Building in downtown Boulder as they fight a fire Wednesday morning.

Thirty firefighters from the Boulder Fire Department were called to work the fire, which began about 10:30 a.m., and they stayed at the scene for hours to make sure the fire was out. Donner said there was some concern that high wind gusts blowing through Boulder at the time -- reaching up to 35 mph, according to meteorologist Matt Kelsch -- would push the fire or re-ignite embers.

Flames spread through a void space between a vaulted ceiling in the building and its roof, Boulder Fire Chief Larry Donner said, so firefighters pulled down portions of the ceiling and cut holes in the roof to let out the smoke and gain access to the blaze.

"It's hidden from view, so it's a difficult fire to fight," Donner said.

A lot of "intensive physical labor" was involved in fighting the fire, he said, because crews were dealing with a hot, dark environment inside the restaurant. One firefighter was reported injured after falling down a ladder, but Donner said that person returned to work at the scene after paramedics determined he was not hurt.

About 1 p.m., fire department spokeswoman Kim Kobel said the blaze was contained. Fire crews finally cleared the scene about 5 p.m., she said. As of Wednesday evening, investigators had not yet determined how the fire started or how much of the building was damaged.

With all of Boulder's firefighters on the Pearl Street Mall on Wednesday, crews from the Lafayette, Louisville, Mountain View and Boulder Rural fire departments helped man the city's stations and respond to other calls, Kobel said.

'They broke down our doors'

The building that caught fire is known as the Tanner Building, which is owned by Pearl St. Mall Properties Inc., a Boulder-based real estate development and property management group operated by J Nold Midyette. Representatives of the company could not be reached for comment.

The building was evacuated, along with neighboring businesses, and police kept 14th Street closed to traffic into the afternoon so fire crews could use cranes to access the blaze.

Electricity on half the block was shut off to avoid potential hazards for firefighters.

Sprinklers inside the restaurant did activate when the fire first broke out, but the flames were above the sprinkler system. The water kept the flames from spreading down into the restaurant but didn't stop the fire from rising.

Donner said the building is not up to modern code, which would have required fire sprinklers inside the void space where the fire spread and did its damage.

Monica Nhep, who was working inside Smooch Frozen Yogurt & Mochi, three doors south of Oak, said she smelled smoke but thought it was burning oatmeal. Moments later, Nhep said, officers burst into the business and told her to evacuate.

"They told me to lock up, but that was pointless because they broke down our doors," Nhep said.

Brian Wood, co-owner of Tee & Cakes at 1932 14th St., said his business had a full house when the fire broke out and everyone had to evacuate. Because the blaze was in a different building, Wood said, he wasn't too concerned about his store being damaged. The fire just meant a loss of a day's worth of business, he said.

'This huge, dark cloud of smoke erupted'

Firefighters, as they scaled ladders and pulled hoses to the top of the Tanner Building, had a large audience for hours Wednesday morning as Pearl Street Mall crowds gawked at the smoky scene.

Jordan Humphrey, who works at Salvaggio's Italian Deli across 14th Street from the fire, said she knew right away that it was no false alarm.

"Everybody just ran out, and this huge, dark cloud of smoke erupted," she said. "It was crazy."

Across Pearl Street from the blaze, Cheesecake Factory bartender Howie Adler said he didn't notice the smoke or fire until the police tape went up around his restaurant and a fire truck pulled onto the pedestrian mall.

"If anything, it was something to watch," Adler said. "Wednesdays are usually boring."