Five-Alarm Fire Near Oakland's Lake Merritt Causes Millions in Damage

A five-alarm fire gutted an apartment complex under construction near Oakland’s Lake Merritt Monday morning. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Investigators are looking for the cause of a five-alarm fire early Monday that gutted an apartment complex under construction near Oakland's Lake Merritt.

The fire sent flames shooting into the sky as it burned the 41-unit building, and people over a wide area reported smelling smoke from the blaze.

Firefighters worked hard to make sure the fire did not spread to nearby buildings.

"Units came on scene, made a defensive attack with the main objective of protecting the exposure buildings from burning," said Oakland Fire Department Chief Teresa Deloach Reed.

Dozens of nearby residents were forced from their homes, and some described a chaotic scene. One woman fleeing her home was injured in a fall, Reed said.

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Firefighters from the Berkeley Fire Department were brought in to help battle the blaze.

The building damaged by the fire, located on the 300 block of Lester Avenue east of Lake Merritt, was several months away from being finished, according to the project's owner. The structure, with a mix of one- and two-bedroom units, was 80 percent completed, said Athan Magganas, manager of Adelphos LLC, the property's owner and developer.

"We're very saddened. It's a tragic loss of property," Magganas said. "I don't think I've come across anybody who did not feel sad today."

He said contractors on the project will be out of work.

"They come to do work today, and they see that all their effort has been blown up into flames," he said.

Magganas said losses from the fire could total $5 million.

"That is a lot of money, and we don't have it," he said.

Magganas said he hopes insurance will cover most of the costs and that work could resume on the project.

"We wish that we can get back in the process of rebuilding, but we do not know what we're faced with," he said.

Magganas speculated that several homeless people at the site overnight may have started the fire.

Chief Reed, though, emphasized that the fire is still under investigation and she would not suggest any potential causes.

PG&E said the blaze cut electricity to more than 300 customers. A utility spokeswoman said those customers lost electricity just after 6 a.m. and had it restored just before 11 a.m.

The blaze comes nearly four months after a five-story apartment building under construction in Emeryville was destroyed in a six-alarm fire, prompting an investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

KQED's Devin Katayama contributed to this report.