‘Huge Balls of Flames:' Five-Alarm Fire Erupts in Oakland Near Lake Merritt

A five-alarm fire broke out early Monday morning at an apartment site under construction in Oakland near Lake Merritt, a trendy and dense area of the city, dashing the developer's plans of immediately finishing a $6-million controversial project he was trying to complete.

Luckily, only one person nearby suffered a minor hand injury, according to Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed, who reclassified the fire from an initial three alarms, all the way up to a five-alarm fire.

It's still unclear how the massive blaze started at a place that some neighbors said was too big for the area.

Neighbor Natalie Cone also said she didn't like how the previous tenants, mostly artists, were "kicked out" of their homes to pave way for the 41-unit project that the developer said was 80 percent complete by the time of the fire.

"A house full of painters, performance artists, people who had deep roots in the community, and they were kicked out of that place," she said.

Just after 5 a.m., crews descended on 317 Lester Ave. to put out the flames in a building that was supposed to be unoccupied. Athan Magganas owns the property, and his company, Adelophos, LLC was currently developing the project. He was issued a permit by the city in 2015 to begin work on the project, which was valued at $6 million, records indicate.

Four other buildings were affected because of the fire, and power went out for a while in the neighborhood. Many were evacuated.

"Get out! Get out!," nearby neighbor Alseny Soumah recounted to NBC Bay Area about being awakened and told to leave his home. "The fire was up on me like this," he added, throwing his hands up into the air to describe how close the flames came to his house.

The flames burned bright in the sky, and crews tried to quash the blaze from ladders stretching high into the air.

Another neighbor, Joyce Thompson, said she saw the growing flames from her balcony, just a couple of hundred feet away.

"The worst thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life," she said. "This is horrible. I hope nobody started this on purpose. I just thought about it a couple of weeks ago. I thought if this catches on fire, I am in a world of hurt."

In a phone interview about 6 a.m., resident Van Nguyen, who lives six blocks away, told NBC Bay Area he woke up thinking he was seeing the sun. He turned to his wife to wake her for an early morning run. She told him, there's no way that's the sun this early in the morning, he recalled. And that's when he realized the light was coming from a massive blaze.

"There are these huge balls of flames spewing from this construction site," he said.

Nguyen thinks things could have been worse. The Bay Area has been soaked with rain over the weekend.

"I'm so thankful we had three days of rain," he said.

In July, a six-alarm burned through an apartment building under construction in nearby Emeryville.

The owner, Rick Holliday, told NBC Bay Area he thought that blaze started by errant fireworks.

As for Monday's blaze in Oakland that devastated another future development to house people in the city, Holliday said, "it's very unsettling."

Agents from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on hand to help Oakland fire officials with the investigation.

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