Property restoration vehicles line the outside of McHenry Library six days after a faulty cord sparked an electrical fire. The library continues to be closed while many of the 1.4 million volumes within are inspected. Photo by Isaac Miller.
Property restoration vehicles line the outside of McHenry Library six days after a faulty cord sparked an electrical fire. The library continues to be closed while many of the 1.4 million volumes within are inspected. Photo by Isaac Miller.

About one half of the 1.4 million volumes of McHenry’s library, bookshelves, desktop computers, and furniture required extensive clean-up and inspection due to the fire that broke out last Thursday on the second floor of the construction portion of the library. The amount of smoke and soot present in the open wing led to its closure until further notice.

“I didn’t realize the severity of the soot and thought that it could be cleaned up easily,” said Ginny Steel, a university librarian. “In some areas, the soot is heavy enough that you can see footsteps on the rugs.”

After becoming aware of the fire around 9 p.m. on April 15, the library security guards pulled the fire alarms, which served as a notification to the circulation staff. About 100 people were asked to evacuate, however, no lives were threatened.

“My friends and I were studying on the third floor, and we noticed that the room became hazy and it started to smell bad,” said Ian Campbell, a first-year politics major from Merrill, who was present when the fire occurred. “After the fire alarms went off we packed our things and left.”

UC Santa Cruz fire officials have indicated that the fire was triggered by an overheated extension electrical cord used to charge batteries for construction and power tools. The cords caused nearby insulation and other plastic materials to catch fire.

Rick Rodewald, assistant chief and campus fire marshal of the UCSC Fire Department, said that the damages caused by the soot and smoke would have been greatly reduced if fire protection features such as fire alarms and sprinklers had been installed in the area undergoing renovation.

“It is a very large building to protect without fire sprinklers, which are a tremendous asset,” he said. “We would have had a major fire if there were bookcases, tables, and chairs providing fuel loading.”

Roughly 50 firefighters extinguished the fire in the old wing of McHenry within about an hour.

“The main fire wasn’t a big deal, but it was hard to locate because of the smoke,” Rodewald said.

A firewall — a fire-resistance wall that separates and subdivides buildings — kept the fire from speading into to area of the library used by students.

“[The firewall] made a tremendous difference and prevented fire spread from the side under construction to the renovated side, as if they were two different buildings,” Rodewald said.

Compact shelving used in McHenry creates a problem in terms of cleaning, because only certain shelves can be opened at one time, instead of having fixed aisles.

While Jim Burns said the cleanup efforts of McHenry are “a pretty painstaking process,” Steel positively acknowledged the university’s response.

“The campus has been wonderful in terms of arranging an international cleaning company where hundreds of people are working around the clock,” Steel said. “It is still uncertain when the library will reopen, but I am hoping the cleaning will be finished toward the end of this week. Areas of the building are still being evaluated.”

Special chemically-treated sponges and high efficiency filter vacuums are being used to clean off and pick up the soot particles.

University officials explained that measures will be taken to prevent accidents like this from happening again.

“[The efforts] are intended to make sure that this does not happen again and that [the library] is safe for students to occupy,” Burns said.

Many students are frustrated with the closure of McHenry, and are anticipating the reopening, which is still unknown.

“I usually go to McHenry to study, and now it is an inconvenience,” said first-year evacuee Campbell. “I’ll just have to deal with it until it’s repaired.”

Some of the operations and services usually offered at McHenry will be provided at the Science and Engineering Library to accommodate students and faculty during the time being.

Materials on reserve and Special Collections from McHenry as well as DVDs and CDs are available to be checked out by request. It is also still possible to return texts as well as research and entertainment media items to McHenry. Research assistance will be available in all subjects.

McHenry librarian Ginny Steel was grateful that the library holdings were not further damaged, but is also disappointed with the library’s shutdown.

“[The fire] was a huge surprise, an unwelcome surprise,” she said. “I’m really sad that it happened, and that we have to be closed for a week. This causes hardships for students and faculty, but it could have been a lot worse.”


Updates regarding McHenry Library are posted regularly at