Four-Alarm Oakland Construction Site Fire Displaces Hundreds

A four-alarm fire early Friday gutted a partially constructed 7-story Oakland building, displacing at least 700 people who live nearby. 

A caller reported seeing smoke from the structure at 2302 Valdez Street around 4:30 a.m., according to Interim Fire Chief Darin White.

Friday’s blaze is the fifth major fire at an Oakland residential construction site in five years. All those fires happened at projects to build new apartments and retail space. The last four were rules suspicious or arson. Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban has been looking into those fires, the likely causes and the many unanswered questions.

The now-destroyed building, which had been under construction for several months, is the Alta Waverly. Its architect is Oakland-based Pyatok and developer is Wood Partners of Mill Valley. Upon completion next spring, the mixed-use project was expected to feature 196 homes and up to 31,500 square feet of retail space.

Instead, flames have reduced the Alta Waverly to a charred skeleton that is unstable and missing chunks of scaffolding. Plumes of smoke not only blanketed the area, but were also visible from as far as the South Bay, and sidewalks for several blocks in all directions were littered with soot and ash. The National Weather Service of the Bay Area said a satellite detected temperatures as high as 1,145 degrees Fahrenheit from the Oakland fire.

Pyatok/Wood Partners
The 7-story building was expected to feature 196 homes and up to 31,500 square feet of retail space upon completion next spring. (July 6, 2017)

The first fire engine was on scene within five minutes of the initial call. Crews were forced to go on the defense immediately because flames were building at the center of the structure. In all, more than 80 firefighters battled the blistering flames with the assistance of more than two dozen fire apparatus, White said. 

"We had zero injuries," he said with a smile. 

But the danger has not passed.

The task of extinguishing the fire, which has since been knocked down, was made riskier as parts of the building crumbled around fire crews, while the scorching heat made a large construction crane swing, White said.

Four-Alarm Fire Engulfs Building Under Construction in Oakland

Radiant heat was felt for several blocks around the fire. That, combined with the threat of the careening crane prompted road closures and roughly 100 evacuations, according to White. People who have been uprooted were given shelter through 5 p.m. at the Cathedral of Christ the Light at 2121 Harrison Street. They can spend the night at St. Vincent De Paul at 2272 San Pablo Ave.

White was unable to specify when people will be allowed to return to their homes, citing ongoing concerns about the integrity of the crane. The evacuation order cannot be lifted until the crane, which could collapse, has been deconstructed and removed, he said. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office plans to send a drone into the scorched building to help the crane operator and Cal/OSHA determine the best way to dismantle it.

A four-alarm fire on Friday engulfed an Oakland building under construction, prompting evacuations in the area.

"I was scared," Mout Khamphou told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Khamphou said she was sitting in her car getting ready to go to work when she saw smoke coming from the building next door.

She drove away, thinking the fire wasn't bad, but called her husband who was still at home to warn him.

"I called my husband and I said, 'I saw the fire start. You have to be careful and get ready to get out.' He called me and said, 'Oh honey, the fire started getting worse and he asked where my passport and papers are. Our apartment won't be safe anymore.' I was crying a lot, I worried.''

She said she turned around and drove back to her neighborhood and found flames shooting from the building. Other evacuees told NBC Bay Area that when they went to close windows to prevent smoke from entering their homes, the glass was hot. 

A four-alarm fire early Friday gutted a partially constructed 7-story Oakland building, displacing nearly 100 people who live nearby. Ian Cull reports.

According to White, it is too early to know what caused the fire because firefighters are still monitoring hot spots. It is only after structural engineers and Cal/OSHA have deemed the building safe that investigators with the Alameda County Arson Task Force can comb through the wreckage.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services is helping Oakland firefighters develop a plan to address the multiple hazards that are puting residents and first-responders at peril, White said.

A construction worker was of the opinion that someone may not have wanted more buildings along Auto Row, which is a hub for new developments. But that theory has not been corroborated by officials. 

At a news conference, Mayor Libby Schaaf promised to offer "comfort and security" to those who were impacted by the fire as well as "relentlessly investigate" its cause.

"With a fire this size, it is miraculous that we have had no loss of loss, no injuries and nothing more than what appears to be cosmetic damage to any ancillary or surrounding structures,” she said.

A four-alarm fire on Friday engulfed an Oakland building under construction, prompting evacuations in the area. Bob Redell, Pete Suratos and Rob Mayeda reports.

Meanwhile, city councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose district includes Alta Waverly, said Oakland leaders will not take Friday's fire lightly.

"We are concerned," she said. "We will look at what the investigation will reveal in terms of whether this was human error or foul play. But I think we all have to be concerned when several hundred units of housing are taken off the market in the middle of an unprecedent housing crisis."

Schaaf agreed.

"Oakland is in the middle of a housing crisis and the loss of these valuable new units only exacerbates that problem," she said. "We are very clear that this type of development is what Oakland needs to get through this moment where rents are skyrocketing, where housing is in high demand.

"This is a loss for our city and for this region right now."

A four-alarm fire on Friday engulfed an Oakland building under construction, prompting evacuations in the area. Bob Redell reports.

The developer reportedly had a roving security patrol at Alta Waverly, and White said confirmed the presence of security cameras in the vicinity. It remains unknown what, if any, surveillance footage was captured.  

Wood Partners issued a statement Friday, in which the company's CEO Joe Keough said, "Our deepest concern goes out to those impacted by this unfortunate event. We are grateful that no injuries were sustained and we are working closely with local fire officials and investigators to identify the cause of the fire."

Fire officials told NBC Bay Area that their efforts to contain the blaze ensured that it didn't reach four homes to the east of the construction site.

The Alameda County Fire Department sent mutual aid to man Oakland's fire stations, while the city's fire department focused on the fire that quickly escalated from two to three and then four alarms.

Fires have plagued Oakland in recent months. 

Last October, a five-alarm fire erupted at an apartment site under construction near Lake Merritt, which is under two miles from Friday's fire.

A three-alarm fire then claimed 36 lives during a December 2016 concert at the Ghost Ship warehouse, and a four-alarm fire in a West Oakland residential building killed four people in March.

People who witnessed the fire or may have any information about it are asked to call a tip line at 510-777-3333.

NBC Bay Area's Bob Redell and Pete Suratos and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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