Passersby reported the fire at 1 Newell Court at 6:05 p.m., and the first firefighters arrived on the scene minutes later, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. A second alarm was added upon their arrival at 6:11 p.m.
The three-story multi-building complex contains 35-units, and Schapelhouman said the fire department had put a fire watch on the buildings after the complex's management company recently lost the properties to the bank.
"These have been problematic buildings for us," he said.
The buildings have posed a hazard, presenting a daily risk to the public, firefighters, or both, he said.
"They presented an imminent risk based upon their design, occupancy, and tactical problems."
Despite the severity of tonight's fire, battling the blaze the sprinkler-absent building could have been significantly worse, Schapelhouman said.
At the time of the fire, 30 of the units were occupied. No injuries were reported to either residents or firefighters.
"There was very rapid access for firefighting, and we were able to use the ladder and to quickly ventilate the fire," Schapelhouman said. "Compared to how this could have gone, everything went very well."
Because the unit where the fire broke out was located on the top story and was adjacent to West Bayshore Road, firefighters had relatively good access and were able to aggressively stamp out the flames.
"Even though the units themselves won't be able to be occupied, people's personal property will be in much better shape" because of the "ease of access," he said.
At least six units will be uninhabitable for a period of time, he said, although the extent of the damage will not be better known until next week. The units directly below where the fire broke out sustained heavy water damage because of the aggressive attack, he said.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but arson was not immediately suspected, Schapelhouman said.
In the meantime, Schapelhouman said, the bank's property managers, Lawarmar Properties, will board up the structures and keep them on fire watch to ensure they do not pose a further hazard to the public or the fire department.
"Based upon the significance and severity of the fire, the entire complex will be closed," Schapelhouman said.
In all, eight engines, two ladders, four battalion chiefs and three fire investigators responded to the scene. Three other San Mateo County fire departments assisted, including the Redwood City Fire Department, Woodside Fire Protection District, and the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department.
The East Palo Alto Police Department assisted in the evacuation of the buildings.