Small fire in ‘man-made tent’ at Berkeley’s Old City Hall homeless camp

Authorities extinguished a small fire on Allston Way on Thursday morning. Photo: Citizen reporter

A small fire at the homeless camp outside Old City Hall in downtown Berkeley caused no injuries but damaged private and public property Thursday morning.

Firefighters used chainsaws to cut down a bush that caught fire, according to one local resident who asked to remain anonymous, and a lean-to belonging to a man who stayed in the bush also was destroyed.

Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Keith May said firefighters responded just after 7 a.m Thursday to the corner of Allston Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Way for a report of flames at a homeless camp. The fire was quickly extinguished, he said, and no injuries were reported. The man whose home was destroyed told firefighters he “knocked over a candle” inside his man-made tent, May said.

Neighborhood resident Kim Aronson, who alerted Berkeleyside about the fire, said the man whose home burned moved onto the property several months ago, several weeks prior to the creation of a large homeless protest camp outside Old City Hall. Aronson said the man had lived inside a bush, which he had built out with boxes and a number of other items.

“He was the only one there from the beginning, and then later the other people came,” Aronson said, though he noted that others have lived inside the bush previously without developing the inside as much.

The local resident who asked to remain anonymous said he saw firefighters putting their chainsaws away at around 7:30 a.m. after chopping down the bush that had burned.

“The homeless man in the lean-to … next to the bush was drinking from a large bottle of amber liquid (he seemed ok fortunately),” the resident said, adding, “Homelessness is a heartbreaking issue with no easy solutions. Whether this is a safe location for an encampment is a separate question. Fortunately it was a damp morning, and the fire didn’t spread.”

The resident noted that there will be a forum on homelessness organized by downtown Councilwoman Kate Harrison on Feb. 5, though the location and time have not been determined. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, as well as city staff responsible for homeless programs and enforcement, are set to speak.