OAKLAND (CBS SF) — A massive 5-alarm fire raced through a three-story, under-construction townhouse complex in Oakland early Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of nearby residents and sparking at least four small fires in neighboring buildings, authorities said.
Oakland Fire Chief Darin White said his agency got several 911 calls reporting the blaze around 1:59 a.m. Arriving firefighters encountered heavy smoke, towering flames and a blizzard of flying embers. The response was quickly elevated from two alarms to five alarms.
“There was a significant number of embers blowing eastward in large quantities,” White told reporters at an early morning news conference. “They had the potential of starting fires elsewhere.”
The embers did spark small fires that damaged two occupied homes and a boarded up structure on nearby Isabella, two blocks away from the massive townhouse complex fire.
The blaze was the latest in series of suspicious fires that have gutted large housing projects under construction in the East Bay dating back to 2012. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf did not mince words when she talked with reporters about the cause of Tuesday’s fire.
“We do not know whether this fire was caused by an arsonist but we do know that arsonists have been trying to burn down housing projects in Oakland,” she said. “We are calling on everyone to be vigilant, to look out for this needed construction of housing.”
As was the case with several of the suspicious fires, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been sent to the scene to search for evidence of arson.
Tuesday’s fire scene also had as many as 16 surveillance cameras installed around it and a security guard was on duty at the time of the blaze. Tapes from the cameras were being reviewed by investigators.
Flames could be seen for miles as Oakland called in mutual aid from nearby cities. Several streets were closed and approximately 30 people
were evacuated from neighboring Market Street residences as a precaution.
Meanwhile, firefighters were limited in their response because of safety concerns of the six buildings on fire.
“We were forced to take a defensive posture,” White said.
The blaze was contained at around 4:45 a.m. and downgraded to 4 alarms, but many of the 90 firefighter remained on the scene extinguishing hot spots and pouring water on the smoldering debris.
One firefighter suffered a leg injury battling the flames. There were no other injuries reported.
The complex — Oakland 2 Icehouse — stretched the length of an entire block, consisted of six buildings, 126 townhomes and was scheduled to open in December.
CEO Phil Kerr of City Ventures — the company building the complex — said that part of the project was not damaged by the flames.
“We are fortunate that the fire affected only a portion of the development,” he said in a statement. “The balance of the neighborhood, or nearly 50%, was untouched, as this area consisted mostly of concrete foundation work. Of the area affected by the blaze, there were 6 small buildings spread horizontally on the property and mid-way through construction, 4 of which have been destroyed by the fire and 2 which we believe remain unaffected.”