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Oakland fire officials upset over blazes in city-owned building

Even after the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, officials said the city is not doing its best to control its own properties

By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — The second time an Oakland fire crew rushed to a city-owned historic building to put out a blaze, Battalion Chief James Bowron nearly lost it.

He and his fire crew had been at the site two weeks earlier, on April 8, to put out a fire on the first floor of the vacant building that squatters apparently had started. When he realized the city owned the building, he called the Oakland Public Works Department and requested they seal it, fearing that another fire could leave many dead.

On April 25, firefighters arrived to find a larger and more ferocious fire that had spread from the first to the second floor. Squatters had apparently reoccupied the building, causing the fire. This time, two firefighters were injured battling the blaze.

“Had it been a different circumstance, we could have had 20 homeless people killed,” Bowron said. “That’s the reality.”

The incidents underscore an unsettling problem in Oakland: Even as the city says it is concerned about illegally inhabited warehouses in the wake of the deadly Ghost Ship fire, it seems unable to control its own properties.

“We expect the citizens and property owners of this city to maintain and take responsibility for their properties,” Bowron wrote in a memo to one of Oakland’s two acting fire chiefs, Darin White, following the second fire. “We (the city) need to hold ourselves to the same if not higher expectations.”

After crews put out the second blaze, Bowron insisted that someone from public works come to the scene. When Jason Mitchell, assistant director in the Public Works Department, and Councilman Noel Gallo showed up, Bowron spelled out his grievances to them.

“I was very frustrated, because we went out and mitigated the first incident and I thought I did my due diligence to ensure no one else from the public would get hurt,” Bowron told The Chronicle.

For years, the 99-year-old Spanish Colonial building at 1449 Miller Ave. served as a public library for the Fruitvale neighborhood, before becoming an experimental school in the mid-1970s for high school dropouts. The school moved out a decade later, and the space has been officially vacant since, due to seismic safety concerns.

But visitors and nearby residents say the Oakland building on the National Register of Historic Places has become an infamous den for drug use, prostitution, gang activity and squatting. It’s eight blocks from the Ghost Ship warehouse, where 36 people were killed when a fire erupted during a music party Dec. 2.

In 2012, a group of activists seized the land in the back of the Miller Avenue building and turned it into a community garden, where they grow corn, fava beans and nectarines. Inside, it’s a different story.

“Whether or not they secure the building, it’s created a big burden on the people trying to raise their kids in the neighborhood,” said Omar Silva, 48, who tends the garden. “It’s this dark hole on the corner where a lot of negative things happen, and it makes people feel powerless.”

Someone inside the building apparently tried to use the old fireplace the night of April 8, Bowron said. Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames, which had spread beyond the hearth, and found 15 to 20 makeshift cots around the floor. Nearly everyone had cleared out, but one woman was still inside and asleep when crews busted open the doors to the smoke-filled first story.

That night, Bowron sent a long email to the two acting fire chiefs, an arson investigator and assistant fire marshal, detailing the dysfunctional interdepartmental communication they faced when fighting the fire, including difficulty finding out who owned the building. He said he deduced that it was owned by the city only through a Google search and a municipal no-trespassing sign.

The battalion chief also told his bosses that he talked to a public works supervisor at the scene and got assurances that the building would be boarded up within a few days. He said in the email that he was concerned about “high risk occupancies” owned by the city “that we allow them to be so porous and allow people to squat in them. If we expect private property owners to maintain their properties shouldn’t we as the city do the same?”

The other acting fire chief, Mark Hoffmann, said there were efforts to board up the building, but he wasn’t sure how effective they were.

“There was evidence it was sealed up. The adequacy I cannot speak to. Obviously people got in a second time,” Hoffmann said. “I know there was a fence around it. I know there was plywood. I’m not sure if every door was boarded up.”

The April 25 blaze led to one firefighter’s breaking his ankle while working on the roof and another straining his back, said Bowron, who fired off another email to Acting Chief Darin White, saying, “This type of laissez-faire approach to a request from one department to another has to stop.

“I understand that there is red tape and hoops that all departments have to jump through but we need to figure out how to do it better!” Bowron wrote.

City spokeswoman Karen Boyd said the battalion chief’s “accusations” were inaccurate. Public works crews boarded up the building after the first fire, she said, but vandals somehow broke through the barriers.

“The city is trying to keep that building secured,” she said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Despite the second fire damaging much of the building, leaving a trail of hazardous burned material in its wake, Gallo said people are still staying there illegally. He called it an “ongoing issue” over the years.

“It’s still happening as of today,” Gallo, whose district includes the neighborhood, said Tuesday. “They’re going through the back. Public works does go out and board it up. As soon as the evening comes, they break the wooden boards used to seal the property.”

After the second fire, the city hired a private company, Belfor Environmental, to seal the building and clear out any asbestos and charred debris. On Wednesday morning, the contractors were finishing sealing windows with boards that are more difficult to break.

The events surrounding the vacant Miller Avenue building are reminiscent of another recent fire in the city. Firefighters repeatedly warned department heads that a West Oakland halfway house was rife with dangers before it burned in March, displacing more than 80 residents and killing four people. “This building is dangerous!” one fire captain had said in an email to his superiors.

In the wake of that fire and the Ghost Ship warehouse inferno, Mayor Libby Schaaf said she would more than double the number of fire inspectors in the next cycle of budget appropriations. Her spokesman did not return a request for comment about the Miller Avenue location.

Some neighbors have long wanted city officials to fix problems in the building and turn it into a community space, rather than sell it or let it continue to languish.

“The city never had an answer for what would happen to the building,” said Silva, the gardener. “No one can stop anyone from squatting in any building in Oakland right now. They drove nails through plywood over the windows. Obviously, it took two pulls to pull that out.”

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