Oakland Firefighters Control Yet Another Huge Construction Blaze

Oakland firefighters battle the four-alarm blaze that swept through an under-construction residential-commercial complex just north of downtown. (Bay City News )

Editor's note: This story contains a correction.

Updated 1:50 p.m. Friday:

More than 700 Oakland residents are being told they may have to wait as long as 24 hours before they can return to their residences after a massive blaze at a building under construction forced evacuations near downtown Oakland. Fire officials were concerned about debris from damaged scaffolding.

A temporary shelter was established at Christ the Light Cathedral, and the Red Cross was also setting up a second center at the corner of San Pablo and Grand avenues for anyone who needs overnight shelter.

Oakland fire officials are working with arson investigators, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but so far they are not commenting on a cause of the blaze that sent flames and smoke high into the early-morning sky.

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At a midday news conference fire officials said the fire started in the center of the building and spread very quickly.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf called the fire a loss for the city and the region.

“This type of development is what Oakland needs to get through this moment, where rents are skyrocketing, where housing is in high demand,” she said. “This is a loss for our city and for this region right now. And that is why we are so determined to ensure that we get to the bottom of what caused this, as well as to do everything to prevent another type of loss like this from ever happening again.”

Schaaf said the city is working with the construction company for the building to beef up security. The construction site did have security cameras in place.

Michael Norris, 69, lives in a high-rise next to the site that burned.

“We were sound asleep and heard over the loudspeaker system alarms going off, and they said you gotta evacuate the building."

He praised local police, fire and the Red Cross for helping everyone out safely and providing blankets to evacuees.

Wood Partners, the developer of the Alta Waverly site, responded to the fire in a press release.

"Thanks to the incredible efforts of the Oakland Fire Department, the Oakland Police Department, the Alameda County Fire, Berkeley Fire Department, Albany Fire Department, and Alameda Fire Department, the fire at Alta Waverly has been contained,” said Brian Hansen, development director for Wood Partners’ West Region. “Their rapid and heroic response ensured no injuries were sustained and that nearby buildings were safely evacuated."

Original Post:

Oakland firefighters have controlled a four-alarm fire that gutted a massive apartment and commercial building under construction just north of the city's downtown district.

The Oakland Fire Department said the blaze -- at 23rd and Valdez streets, near the Christ the Light Cathedral at the northwest end of Lake Merritt -- started about 4:30 a.m. Friday.

The fire -- the fourth time in the past year a major Oakland residential development has gone up in flames -- also damaged and endangered buildings adjacent to the fire and forced some nearby residents from their homes.

From the San Francisco Chronicle's account from the scene:

From a few blocks away, neighbors and area workers watched the building be gutted in the intense heat.

“I was scared,” said Mout Khamphou, 50, who was sitting in her car getting ready to go to work when she saw smoke coming from the building next door.

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

“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 to find flames shooting from the burning building. “I saw a lot of smoke. Big, big smoke. That's why I'm shaking and crying a lot,” Khamphou said. “So I’m worried. We have all our stuff in there.”

Firefighters were working to contain the inferno and keep nearby buildings from catching fire. A number of streets in the area were blocked off. The cause was under investigation.

Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated by police and firefighters, many stood on the streets outside the burning structure in their pajamas. Black ash was falling from the sky on cars and people in the area.

And from the East Bay Times/Bay Area News Group:

Rebecca Sills lives across the street from the fire and was awake early to prepare for a flight to New York with her nephew. Shortly before 5 a.m., she said she heard a boom and looked outside her 15th floor window.

“There were already to separate fires right after the boom,” Sills said. She called 911 at 4:58 a.m. and then ran down 15 flights of stairs.

“It sounded like more fireworks in Oakland to be honest, but the boom was lower and deeper,” she said. She got more concerned about the fire when her brother Eli Sills called her to tell her police were evacuating the building.

“You could feel the radiant heat. It was just insane,” Eli Sills said. “You could see the glow off the buildings. It was wild.”

As the fire progressed, the Sills said the large crane at the construction site began to rotate.

“Then it started swinging,” Eli Sills said. “It was a wild scene. Debris began falling down everywhere.”

There were no early reports of injuries or immediate estimate of damage.

The building under construction, called Alta Waverly, was to be a mixed-use building with 196 units of housing and 31,000 square feet of retail space.

The neighborhood, part of a two-block-wide corridor east of Broadway between Grand Avenue and 31st Street, is the scene of particularly intense development. About 2,300 housing units, ranging from student housing to luxury condos, have been recently completed or are under construction or in the planning process.

The blaze was the fourth time in the past year that a major residential housing project has been destroyed by fire.

Those incidents include two blazes, both arson fires, that struck a single site near MacArthur Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue, on the Emeryville border. Those fires occurred July 6, 2016, and May 13 of this year.

Another new residential project burned last Oct. 31 just east of Lake Merritt.

Oakland police officers talk to onlookers near scene of Friday morning's four-alarm fire north of downtown. (Kat Snow/KQED)

Correction: This post originally incorrectly identified the address of Friday morning's fire and the name of the property's developer. The blaze occurred at 23rd and Valdez streets and the developer of the project is Wood Partners. We regret the error.

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KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero contributed to this post.

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