Suspicious fire at historic Berkeley home displaces man, kills dog

A fire in West Berkeley displaced a longtime resident and killed his small white dog, Cotton Ball, early Saturday morning.

“I called him, and he didn’t come,” said Dennis Eimoto, who came out to check on his property later in the day. He said he first believed his dog had escaped the fire. The man’s eyes brimmed over with tears as he recalled, wailing, how he’d later found his beloved companion dead inside the house. “The smoke killed him. Poor dog. I feel so bad.”

According to neighbors, Eimoto was raised in the 2-story Victorian home in the 1700 block of Eighth Street, between Delaware and Virginia streets, and continued to live there after his parents died. The home was built in 1898 according to real estate records online.

Eimoto said he woke up to use the bathroom, and believes that saved his life because it allowed him to get outside in time. But he was then trapped in his backyard because access to the street on both sides of the home has been completely blocked by a variety of items the 71-year-old has set up outside. Firefighters had to break down the neighbor’s fence to get Eimoto out and get their hoses in.

For now, he is staying with a friend around the corner and receiving help with groceries from the Red Cross.

People familiar with the property described it as a “hoarder house.” Neighbors expressed sympathy and concern for Eimoto, but said the fire may have been the culmination of a years-long decline. According to multiple sources, PG&E had cut the man’s power earlier in January because he had not paid his bill. Neighbors said Eimoto had an “open door policy” — he literally often left his front door open — and that questionable characters sometimes took advantage of the man’s generosity. At times, violent disturbances would take place in the street outside.

“There was an inevitability about this thing,” said one neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. “When you look at it, this is where it was all headed.”

Both sides of the property were blocked by so many items that firefighters had to break down a neighbor’s fence to get inside. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley Fire Department investigation is not complete, but the preliminary damage estimate for the structure is $250,000. The contents inside have not been evaluated. BFD said the fire’s cause, though not yet established, “does appear to be somewhat suspicious.” The fire investigator took accelerant detectors to the scene, and those findings will become part of the official report when it’s done.

Eimoto said he believes someone threw something like gasoline, or a Molotov cocktail, onto his porch. He said he heard a “whoosh” before the fire started. He bemoaned having been unable to knock down the fire himself with a garden hose, and said he believed he should have been able to stop it.

Another neighbor said she was awake at 12:25 a.m. Saturday when she “felt and heard a boom” down the block. She and her husband had been watching television.

Neighbor: “My sister and nephew just went through the Santa Rosa fire. That was definitely on my mind, thinking about it jumping houses and catching the rest of the neighborhood on fire.”

“We were kind of waiting for an earthquake to happen, but that didn’t happen,” she said. Despite the cold weather, a skylight was open, and that’s the only reason, she thinks, she heard Eimoto yelling for help. “My porch is on fire,” she heard him saying. “Someone call 911.”

She continued: “We were scared: My sister and nephew just went through the Santa Rosa fire. That was definitely on my mind, thinking about it jumping houses and catching the rest of the neighborhood on fire.”

Police and firefighters arrived quickly but found thick smoke and the front of the home, up to the roof peak, engulfed in flames. The fire had already spread to the second floor and into the attic, said Berkeley Fire Department Battalion Chief Brian Harryman on Saturday.

He noted that the age of the house likely contributed to the rapid spread of the fire because of the construction type and lack of fire-resistant features that would otherwise have been present. And he said there were other problems too.

“The amount of combustibles that he had inside and outside of the house really hampered our firefighting ability,” Harryman said. “There was just so much stuff that he had accumulated over the years. It was all over. We were climbing over it and around it. It was almost impossible to get around.”

Harryman said the house is unsafe and is not habitable at this time. He confirmed that a dog was found dead in the front room. There was also a birdcage, which had held some pet parakeets. But the cage was empty when firefighters located it, so there’s hope the birds survived.

Signs of firefighting efforts were still evident on the sidewalk Saturday afternoon. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Neighbors said it was sad to see the home, one of the few Victorians left in the vicinity, suffer such significant damage. And they were sad to see Eimoto — who had reportedly lived in the home since he was a child — encountering so much difficulty in his life. But the decline of the property has caused tension and turmoil on the block, they indicated. When Eimoto’s parents had overseen it, they made sure the property was pristine, one recalled.

“The father, even when he was going blind, would be picking little weeds,” said the neighbor who described the fire as seemingly inevitable. He said it had been at least 10 years since “things started getting strange. Somehow it started going downhill.”

He described Eimoto as a “tough nut” and “a survivalist,” and said he wished he had done more to help the man get help. But he said, too, that “every kind of service” had been to the property on a “continual basis” to try to help Eimoto. Nothing had worked.

The neighbor said he also is concerned because Eimoto has said he is determined to live in the backyard despite the state of the house and property. The only access to that yard is up a neighbor’s driveway and through a tall gate. The knocked-down section of fence on the border of the two properties is on the other side.

The neighbor who heard the explosion and called 911 described Eimoto as “such a cool dude but mixed up in some bad stuff.” She said he was a retired BART operator who at times would be “dressed to the nines” in some type of uniform. He also had “samurai garb” he would sport.

Saturday afternoon, Eimoto appeared on the block as neighbors discussed the fire with a visitor. He walked up the neighboring driveway, then reached up and opened his neighbor’s gate without acknowledging the presence of others in the area or asking for permission. He proceeded to walk into his own yard, where he straightened up some items, then walked out through the crowded driveway.

During a brief interaction with this reporter, Eimoto kept up a running monologue that could not be interrupted. He would occasionally manage to answer a direct question, but otherwise seemed locked into his own thoughts and perceptions as he picked up a rolling cart from his house, and reset some wooden boards that had been displaced.

There’s some indication online that Eimoto at one time may have been a fisheries biologist in Salinas, but Berkeleyside was unable to confirm this. He did say, in response to repeated questions, that he had been a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve at one time. Attempts to reach members of the Eimoto family had been unsuccessful as of publication time.

The fire scene, early Saturday morning. Photo: Citizen reporter