‘Largest fire since 1991’ leaves many locals homeless

The Sequoia Apartment building on Saturday afternoon. The fire gutted the interiors, with floors and roof sections collapsing. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, 11.21.11, 9:09 am: ASUC (The Associated Students of the University of California) is organizing a Donation Drive for those displaced by the fire on Haste and Telegraph. Many of the residents of The Sequoia Apartments were students. Visit the ASUC Donation Drive Facebook page for details.

Original story: The devastating fire that tore through the Sequoia Apartment building at 2441 Haste Street Friday night and Saturday morning has left dozens of people homeless. The five-story, 39-unit building was gutted by the fire, is uninhabitable and is likely to be demolished soon.

What remains of the building, which has been red-tagged, is structurally unsafe. Firefighters were still on the scene Saturday afternoon as the site is still considered an active fire.

It has not been formally established whether everyone who lived in the building managed to get out during the fire.

“We are not totally convinced that everyone is out of there,” Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates said Saturday at the scene of the fire, reported by the Berkeley Daily Planet. Deputy Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong added the building had a history of casual tenants.

The city is working with the American Red Cross and the university to establish a final count and identify the occupants, which include families and students, in order to connect them with appropriate services. Residents should call the Fire/Police non-emergency line at 510-981-5900. Displaced residents can also call the Red Cross at 510-595-4441.

City of Berkeley spokesperson Mary-Kay Clunies-Ross told Berkeleyside: “We’re working with the building owner to determine what are going to be the next steps. At least some deconstruction will be necessary to completely extinguish the fire. Also, there is a lot of unreinforced masonry, so that is an issue as well.”

Because the building is hazardous, the intersection of Haste and Telegraph will be closed to traffic through the weekend and likely beyond. There is some pedestrian access to some of the nearby businesses. “We’re working with AC Transit to redirect bus routes and are developing a traffic plan to help people maneuver around the intersection,” Clunies-Ross said.

The fire department has not yet determined the cause of the fire. Access to the building, which is owned by Greg and Kenneth Ent, is deemed unsafe.

Deputy Fire Chief Dong said the fire, which burned for more than 17 hours, was the biggest one he could remember in his career after the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.

While principally a traumatic experience for the building’s residents, the fire is also a blow to the Telegraph Avenue business owners who have been campaigning to have the vacant lot opposite the Sequoia building cleaned up and potentially developed. The site, which is owned by Ken Sarachan, has been vacant since the early 1990s, has been overrun by rats and is seen as a blight on the neighborhood. Local merchants now face the prospect of two vacant lots facing each other on Telegraph at Haste.

Berkeleyside readers who wish to help people who have lost possessions and their home in the fire should contact the Red Cross directly at 510-595-4441.


Related:
Devastating fire in apartment building, Haste at Telegraph [11.19.11]
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) [01.28.11]