Oakland fire, started in encampment, controlled after damaging structures

22 October 2020

Published by https://www.sfchronicle.com/

USA – A grass fire that began at a homeless encampment spread quickly in Oakland on Thursday evening, damaging at least two structures along Interstate 580 as firefighters scrambled to hold it back amid windy and dry conditions.

The blaze was reported about 5 p.m. Thursday, along westbound I-580 near 35th Avenue, according to the Fire Department. The fire spread to two more locations: Quigley Street and Loma Vista Avenue, where several homes abut the freeway, and Interstate 580 and High Street, where a spot fire was reported.

Firefighters wrestled the blaze under control shortly after 7 p.m.

Kwan Leung was working at the Chevron gas station on 35th Avenue right beside the off-ramp of westbound Interstate 580 around 5 p.m. when he saw smoke. He came out to investigate and behind the wall separating the station and a car shop from the freeway, saw a bush near the exit on fire.

He tried to call the Fire Department but said the line was busy, so he called his boss, who showed up to water down the building. Firefighters arrived within five minutes.

Leung heard propane tanks popping and watched as the wind pushed the fire down the hillside along the freeway that backed up to a row of homes, some separated only by a chain link fence.

The fire quickly grew, catching a couple of trees, one of which firefighters had to cut down, Leung said.

“I was concerned for the building,” Leung said, but other than smoke blackening the shop, it wasn’t damaged.

Leung said the hillside was a homeless encampment, but he said he hadn’t seen anyone there for a couple of days and didn’t know what started the fire. Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief Nick Luby said the fire began at the encampment and it was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived.

The strong wind pushing the fire along the freeway panicked neighbors.

Renais Winter’s husband was in the back room of their home on Quigley Street when he first noticed the danger. “He smelled smoke in the house and an enormous black, greasy smoke,” she said. “He came running out and started hollering.”

Neighbors ran into the street, grabbing their own hoses to water down the backs of their houses as embers spread smoke and flames to backyards near the gas station.

Jeremiah Burks and his stepfather dragged a hose and got buckets of water as brush started to catch fire in their backyard on Quigley Street. Flames were blistering a tree in their neighbor’s yard, and smoke was pouring from under a small building they used as an office in the back. A palm tree ignited at their neighbor’s house on the other side.

When firefighters showed up, they extinguished the flames and punched a hole in the small office to put out the embers. Exhausted but relieved, Burks sat in a car in his driveway on the phone with his girlfriend as fire trucks lined the street around 6:30 p.m.

“This is our property, everything to our name,” he said.

As darkness fell, firefighters with flashlights picked through the charred black wreckage, looking for hot spots.

The blaze came during what is expected to be a hazardous next few days for fire conditions in the Bay Area and the rest of California. Critical fire weather conditions are expected to return late Saturday night through Monday, with winds peaking overnight Sunday.

“The winds are our enemy right now,” Luby said. “This is a little sampling of what we need to prepare for heading into the weekend.”

Mallory Moench and Michael Williams are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.commichael.williams@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench, @michaeldamianw

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