Sunday, May 14, 2017

Five-alarm fire destroys Emeryville, CA apartment complex under construction for second time in under a year

Massive blaze ignites early morning sky in Emeryville — flames could be seen 80 blocks away
Fire destroys apartment complex for second time in under a year

Firefighters battled a five-alarm fire on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville, near the West Oakland border, on Saturday, May 13, 2017. It's the second time the five-story complex under construction has burned in less than a year. (Harry Harris / Bay Area News Group)
By Harry Harris | Bay Area News Group
UPDATED: May 14, 2017 at 3:25 am

EMERYVILLE, CA — A retail-apartment complex near the border of Oakland at Adeline Street and San Pablo Avenue burned in a spectacular five-alarm blaze early Saturday — the same building that was under construction again after it was destroyed in a massive, six-alarm fire last July.

First reported at 4:58 a.m., the fire at 3800 San Pablo Ave. was under control by early afternoon, but Oakland and Alameda County firefighters still were monitoring hot spots.

Traffic on several streets was closed to all vehicle and foot traffic except for emergency vehicles.

Heat from the blaze was so intense that it buckled metal scaffolding around the building and damaged a construction crane to the point that firefighters feared it could collapse. As such, 35 residents so far have been evacuated from 15 apartments and condominiums at 3900 Adeline St., according to Alameda County Fire Department spokeswoman Aisha Knowles.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation, although Knowles acknowledged the fire is considered “suspicious.”

There were no reports of injuries so far. The complex is located at the convergence of San Pablo Avenue and 39th and Adeline streets. Streets near the fire were blocked off and dozens of people gathered outside the barricades to watch the firefighters battle the blaze.

Police and fire officials said the street closures would remain in place until the fire was fully extinguished and the damaged crane was dismantled. The streets closed include San Pablo Ave. between 37th and 40th streets, Adeline St. between 36th St. and Yerba Buena Ave., 39th St. between Adeline and Market streets, Apgar St. between W. Macarthur Blvd and Market St. and W. Macarthur Blvd. between Emery and Market streets.

Chirag Dalibar, 49, lives two blocks away in Emeryville and said he was already awake when he saw the flames.

“It was a big fire, a huge fire and inferno, the biggest fire I’ve ever seen,” he said. “There were lots of embers flying around, smoke. It was everything you would imagine that a big fire would create.”

High flames and smoke could be seen for several miles, and there were some precautionary evacuations — later lifted — of neighboring homes or businesses as a precaution as embers flew blocks away, sparking minor grass fires in vacant lots. One police officer said that embers landed in a school dumpster a few blocks away in the 3300 block of Market Street, but the small fire was quickly extinguished.

Embers are also thought to have burned the roof of a house about two blocks away on 36th Street, although that fire, too, remains under investigation.

Oakland Battalion Chief Zoraida Diaz said the fire will be investigated jointly by Alameda County Fire, Oakland Fire, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Diaz said it could be a new investigation or a continuation of the investigation from last July’s fire. She said that this time there were cameras and security guards at the construction site but it was too early to determine the point of origin or cause of the fire.

Members of ATF’s National Response Team will be arriving from around the country in the next day or two to help local fire investigators, who are looking for witnesses as well as video footage of the blaze and the surrounding area.

Almost 100 firefighters from Oakland and Alameda County battled the fire, both from within the burning structure and with aerial ladders on the outside. The firefighters were also assisted by drones operated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

Diaz said a major complication was high winds that blew embers for several blocks, prompting crews to be specifically assigned to putting out minor fires they started.

Vandy Tauch, who lives on 36th Street and watched the last fire at the site, said he was frightened because “this time it was blowing to my area.”

He said he was asleep when he heard a “crackling sound” and when he went to look out a window saw “a huge orange fireball.”

He woke up his wife and three children and rushed outside, grabbing a garden hose to start “watering everything down.

“I saw all these embers flying all over. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like fireballs coming down from a volcano.”

Firefighters eventually arrived at his home to keep it safe.

Diaz said firefighters would be on the scene for the next 24 hours at least to make sure there were no significant flareups.

She said the fire did spread to some condominiums under construction at Apgar Street and West MacArthur Boulevard that had been destroyed in last year’s fire.

Last summer, the same building and an adjoining auto business on 39th Street were gutted, and 10 townhouses on Apgar Street were damaged in a fire that took hours to bring under control. At the time, the apartment complex, called the Intersection, was a project of Holliday Development. It was designed to include rehabilitation of the historic Maz Building at the juncture of three major routes — Adeline Street, MacArthur Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue — with 105 units and 25,000 square feet of commercial space on the border of Emeryville and West Oakland.

ATF was offering a $10,000 reward for information that would help pinpoint the cause of that July blaze, the investigation into which is still active.