Update, Nov. 25: The fire at 2067 University Ave. is almost extinguished and only a small number of Berkeley firefighters remain on scene. The Berkeley Fire Department successfully removed the metal hoist at the front of the building on Tuesday and was able to extinguish most of the hot spots. However, flames kicked up on the sixth floor today. A fire is considered extinguished when there are no flames or smoke for 24 hours, said Assistant Fire Chief Keith May. Crews will remain on the scene overnight, he said. University is still closed to traffic from Shattuck Avenue to Milvia Street, but it is open to pedestrians.
Original story: Almost 48 hours after a fire broke out in a 7-story building under construction on University Avenue, flames are continuing to eat away at the structure.
On Tuesday, the Berkeley Fire Department will take some unusual steps to get more deeply inside the building and extinguish the remaining flames it can’t access, according to Assistant Fire Chief Keith May. The work is also being done to prevent the building from possibly collapsing, he said.
A large crane will peel off the “hoist” — the metal structure in front of 2067 University Ave. that was used to lift equipment from the street to the roof. Then the screening around the building will be taken off.
“The fire is well hidden,” May said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s in spots we can’t get at with our fire streams.”
Every since Saturday at 5:30 p.m., when the fire was first reported, firefighters from Berkeley and other cities have been dousing the structure with numerous cannons of water. So much water was dumped on the flames that the northern section of University Avenue turned into a fast-flowing stream. But there are some hot spots, possibly metal components, that just haven’t gone out, although the fire is now under control, said May.
The Berkeley Fire Department asked the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to send its drone into the building to identify hot spots, said May. Firefighters were then able to direct water to those areas, he said. But the drone cannot spot everything and fire inspectors can’t get into the building yet. The work scheduled to happen Tuesday should allow firefighters better access.
May said the fire department does not know yet what caused the fire to start nor the dollar amount of the damage.
David Lau, one of the owners of the building, told Berkeleyside he wasn’t ready yet to talk about the fire and what will happen next with the building. But he did thank Berkeley firefighters and all the other first responders for working so hard to save the structure.
The fire is impacting restaurants and small businesses
University Avenue from Milvia to Shattuck Avenue has been closed since Saturday night and fire officials have kept small business owners out of their restaurants on Shattuck as well. No one is certain when they will be able to reopen, although many are optimistic they will be able to return on Tuesday.
The buildings around the 7-story structure, which was to contain 50 market-rate units for students, appear to have suffered water damage from the fire, according to May and interviews with some restauranteurs. The three-story apartment building next door at 2057 University Ave., does not look habitable, said May. Its residents were evacuated Saturday night, as were people living two doors down at the Nash Hotel. May did not have an exact figure on how many people were displaced by the fire. The Bay Area Chapter of the Red Cross came to the scene with food, water, blankets and money for hotel rooms.
Jed Riffe, the co-owner of Smoke, a barbecue restaurant that shares space with Spats at 1974 Shattuck Ave. and is near the building that burned, said there was no water damage in his structure as far as he could see. Riffe is anxious about when he can get back to work, however. He has an order to cook 47 turkeys for Thanksgiving and he needs to get those started by Tuesday to be ready for Wednesday pick-up, he said. On Monday Riffe said he had formed a contingency plan to cook the turkeys by asking fellow restaurants, like KC’s BBQ on San Pablo Avenue, for help.
Claudine Gutierrez, the manager of Milkbomb, the ice cream store at 2079 University Ave., next door to the one that burned, said all the inventory has melted since electricity was cut off.
Rana Qudsia, who cooks and helps out at her daughter’s restaurant, Turkish Kitchen at 1986 Shattuck Ave., said her family was only able to go inside for a few minutes today. The restaurant looked allright although she thinks there is water damage upstairs. Having to close for a few days is just another blow on top of the slow sales because of the pandemic.
“All the businesses are not doing good,” said Qudsia. “I don’t know what will happen.”
John Caner, the executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the loss of 50 housing units is terrible, as is the impact on the downtown.
“It’s a blow to the downtown,” said Caner. “It’s the last thing downtown Berkeley needs.”
Firefighters have had to fight several fires in recent days
Berkeley firefighters have been working hard to battle this blaze, which hit six alarms on Friday night, the first six-alarm fire in the city since 2011. The fire broke out just as a new crew was starting its two-day-on, four-day-off rotation, said May. Berkeley called in mutual aid from nearby cities and those firefighters helped until early Sunday morning. Since then, only Berkeley firefighters have been working, he said.
On Monday, the fire department had the four sides of the building each covered by a crew that worked for four hours, said May. They were then swapped out so everyone could get some rest. The fire department’s command staff was called in to help. All extra activities, like training, have been canceled. One firefighter is on leave because they tested positive for COVID-19.
The department has been so focused on the University Avenue fire that its investigators have not had the time to complete looking into other recent fires, including one that killed Dennis Eimoto at his home in West Berkeley on Nov. 18 and a fire that destroyed an RV and damaged two homes on Nov. 22.
May said there is no evidence that these fires are linked in any way and he said there is no indication an arsonist is on the loose. The fire at Eimoto’s home does not appear to have started suspiciously, he said.