About a month before Christmas, on November 23, 1983, at 12:22 a.m., two Denver policemen discovered fire and smoke at the University Hills Mall on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. After all was said and done, the fire took five hours to bring under control, and it was the first five-alarm fire in the 100-year history of the Denver Fire Department. Damage to the mall was estimated at that time at $15 million. Close to 150 firemen fought the blaze, as well as 60 police support personnel. Luckily, only two firemen received minor injuries, and there were no deaths. There were 25 firefighting vehicles, and 10 support and supply vehicles used to suppress the fire.
Many of you may remember the University Hills Mall. Various stores were part of the mall, such as May D&F, Fashion Bar, Hatch’s Books, and everyone’s favorite, Orange Julius! The mall was opened in August 1951, as an open air shopping center, and became enclosed in 1976. At the time of the fire, there were 48 stores within the mall, totaling over 330,000 square feet.
As was reported in the Denver Post (November 24, 1983), the fire spread so fast because of the open spaces above the false ceilings, and there were no fire stops or sprinklers above those ceilings. It was reported to have started near the Yarbro Drugs store, where the entire roof later collapsed. Eleven businesses were completely destroyed, eight to ten stores had heavy smoke and water damage, and six stores, including May D&F, Fashion Bar, and Dave Cook Sporting Goods, had heavy smoke damage only. Most of the stores were stocked for the Christmas shopping season and had considerable losses, though many owners at the time planned to be back in business soon after the blaze.
The fire was difficult to fight due to the cold temperature, which had dropped to 8 degrees. Water froze on the firefighters’ coats, and the firefighters slipped and fell on the icy pavement. At 5:53 a.m., the fire was brought under control, though it took half of the city’s fire trucks to do so.
Stories broadcast on the local news had somewhat exaggerated the damage to the mall. Many people thought the whole mall had burned down and was destroyed. While many stores were heavily damaged, some were up and running soon after the fire.
The University Hills Mall is long gone, having been replaced by a large King Soopers grocery store and many big box stores. Many malls have been replaced by new shopping concepts, such as the Belcaro shopping area, or by big box, stand alone stores.
In March of 1984, Chubb and Sons Inc., the insurance carrier for some of the mall’s stores, filed a lawsuit against the mall and Yarbro Drugs, where the fire was believed to have started. The insurance company claimed that the mall was negligent because they should have known about hazardous electrical wiring, which may have contributed to the fire starting. “Yarbro Drugs allowed the ‘improper and excessive use of electrical extension cords within its leased premises...thereby creating a risk of fire,’ the lawsuit said,” (Rocky Mountain News, March 16, 1984).