String of Homeless Encampment Fires Highlight Dangers to Residents: Firefighters Called to Sites Every Two Days Earlier This Year


City of Oakland workers replace a stop light this past Monday, which was damaged during a fire at a homeless encampment at Fifth and Market streets. - BRIAN KRANS
  • Brian Krans
  • City of Oakland workers replace a stop light this past Monday, which was damaged during a fire at a homeless encampment at Fifth and Market streets.

A rash of fires at Oakland homeless encampments this week highlights the dangers to people living at these spaces.

In fact, these blazes have became so common that the Oakland Fire Department recently began keeping track of them with their own code.

According to department call data, the new designation was first used on May 23. Firefighters logged nearly a dozen encampment-fire calls during the subsequent month, most of them at large sites underneath freeways.

Data from May and June indicates that there is a fire-department call to a homeless encampment every two days.

Recently, fires have been occurring more regularly at two longstanding homeless encampments, both located under major freeways or elevated BART tracks.

The first occurred along a stretch of Fifth Street near Interstate 880, which also saw two significant fires in late May. Luckily, no one has been hurt in these fires.

The most recent fire there occurred at a lone homeless encampment on the corner Fifth and Market streets early Sunday morning. Oakland police arrested a 33-year-old man from Oakland, who was initially believed to be responsible for the fire. The man’s name had not been released as of Tuesday.

Nearby residents say they knew the man as “Rip,” and told the Express they didn’t believe the fire’s cause was arson, rather negligence.

One woman — who said she wasn’t a fan of the man and didn’t want to give her name — said the fire in question was an accident. She claimed that the man sometimes behaved erratically and set his own property on fire.

After an investigation, the fire department determined that the man taken into custody did not cause the fire, but remained in police custody for unrelated offenses, police spokeswoman Johnna Watson told the Express.

While no one was injured in the blaze, it did take out a stop light and disabled other traffic lights at the intersection. City crews were there on Monday to replace the damaged light.

A second string of fires occurred before 10 a.m. on Monday. They included several small ones at West Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, under Interstate 980, another longstanding homeless encampment. No one was reported injured, and fire officials stated that cooking devices were believed to be the source of those blazes.

While there have been instances of fires being deliberately set — including video of a person intentionally torching a tent in West Oakland in late May — data from fire officials suggests the vast majority of the camp blazes are accidental.

Residents say fires often start because people will get too high and leave a flame going, or that someone will throw a cigarette into a pile of highly flammable rubble. Other fires start becomes a person is simply trying to cook food with a camping stove, but inside their makeshift homes, which are often made of wood, blankets, and other flammable materials.

According to encampment residents who spoke to the Express, police, fire, and city workers visiting sites recently have told those living there not to use heating devices, such as barbecue grills and camping stoves, directly in their tents or in densely populated areas.

Large piles of uncollected garbage also compound the fire risk at these locations. Of all the other resources the homeless say they need, fire extinguishers could help prevent smaller fires from turning into larger, potentially fatal blazes.

“Once one of these things catches on fire, it goes up in seconds,” one resident told the Express.

Oakland is home to more than half of the estimated 3,863 unsheltered homeless individuals in Alameda County. More than 80 percent of those were living in Alameda County before becoming homeless, according to the latest homeless survey.