A massive five-alarm fire gutted a nearly completed 126-unit townhouse complex in West Oakland early Tuesday morning, the latest in a string of fires that have mysteriously broken out at residential construction sites over the past few years.
Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a morning news conference it’s unclear whether an arsonist set the blaze at the Ice House Residence, a multi-story, six-building complex near West Grand Avenue and Myrtle Street. She added, however, that “arsonists have been trying to burn down housing projects in Oakland.”
Since 2016, at least three fires set by an arsonist have engulfed apartment buildings being built in Oakland, two of them at the same building near the Emeryville border about a year apart.
An email obtained Tuesday afternoon by the Bay Area News Group revealed that a after a fire broke out at the Ice House development in late April fire officials warned then about “lax security at a building that is in its most vulnerable stage of construction.”
The sole security guard for the complex told fire department officials at the time that “unauthorized persons” were coming and going from the area and possibly squatting at the construction site. Fire officials also expressed concern that the buildings lacked fire protection for exposed framing, heat or motion detecting devices and security cameras, and that there were openings in the fence.
Developer City Ventures CEO Phil Kerr told this news organization that the company installed more surveillance cameras and revamped its sprinkler system after the April fire. Kerr said he was not aware of any heat or motion detectors at the site, but noted the surveillance cameras are monitored by a security company, which alerted authorities to the fire.The security guard was in a different building at the time.
Reported at 1:59 a.m., the fire sent up huge flames that lit up the dark sky and could be seen for miles around.
One firefighter suffered a moderate leg injury and was taken to a hospital, treated and released, fire officials said. More than 12 hours after the blaze started, firefighters were still working to extinguish it.
Schaaf urged people — especially those who live near construction sites — to keep an eye out for possible arsonists and call 911 if they see any suspicious activity. People can also call the city’s anonymous arson tip line at 510-238-4031 to submit tips.
“An attack on new housing in Oakland is an attack on keeping families housed in Oakland. In a housing crisis, we need to build housing as quickly and effectively as possible, but the bigger offense is the absolute risk of loss of life,” Schaaf said.
Fire Chief Darin White said the blaze quickly escalated to a five-alarm fire, and 90 firefighters and supervisors responded.
Firefighters received a report of an attempted arson at another construction site at 3266 Peralta St. shortly after the Ice House fire was reported, White said. He said the fire department is on “heightened alert,” trying to discover what happened and whether the two incidents are related.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ National Response Team is investigating the fire, as it does with all large-scale fires and explosions.
White said the massive fire burned six two- and three-story buildings containing new townhouses The Ice House Residence Two project was named after the old Dreyer’s Ice Cream factory that once occupied the site. The development by City Ventures is supposed to feature market-rate, solar-powered, all-electric housing units.
White would not immediately call the burning structure a total loss, but said at minimum the fire would pose a “substantial impact” on the construction. Of the six buildings under construction, four were destroyed.
Of the 126 homes in the development, about 50 had already been sold, Kerr said.
The company plans to continue developing the unscathed portion of the site, which mostly consisted of concrete foundation work, while rebuilding the burned portion, Kerr said, adding that the fire will set the project back about four months.
The first buildings are expected to be finished within six months, he said.
Kerr added that 42 families who had purchased homes were planning to move in around the holidays. The company will work with them on a “one-to-one basis to determine their interest in still moving in.”
When firefighters first arrived, flames were so strong that crews could not enter the buildings. An Alameda County Sheriff’s Office drone and Oakland Police Department helicopter helped monitor the fire.
Embers from the fire spread as far as two to three blocks away, and caused two small fires at homes on the 800 block of Isabella Street east of the fire site, officials said. A family in one of the homes evacuated safely, and firefighters brought that fire under control after it damaged some of the home’s eaves and siding.
The second home was vacant, and firefighters quickly got that blaze under control.
“It was crazy. It was raining red stuff, embers, and the sky was orange,” resident Yareli Aguas said.
Aguas, her family and her neighbors grabbed water hoses and started spraying houses down and alerting their neighbors.
Officials concerned about embers igniting other fires evacuated 25 to 30 nearby residents. PG&E was summoned to cut electricity and gas service to the area as a precaution, and at one point about 2,000 residents did not have service. As of 5:15 p.m., 483 were still without power. PG&E estimated power would be restored by 8 p.m.
Gaby Contreras, who lives down the street from the burning complex, said her husband woke her and she immediately heard some booms and saw yellow and red flames shooting into the night sky.
“It was very, very big,” Contreras said.
Sonia Valle, who lives in an apartment next door to one of the homes that burned on Isabella, said she was already awake around 2 a.m. because of the smoke and commotion when she saw flames outside her window. She panicked and grabbed her puppy Corvo, then ran outside.
Tuesday’s inferno was one of the largest residential fires in recent years. Others include a fire at 2551 San Pablo Ave. in March 2017 that killed four people, and the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December 2016 that killed 36 people attending a party. Mercury News