OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - The fast-moving fire that destroyed a building supply store in Oakland appears linked to homeless squatters who were camping behind the warehouse, according to witnesses at the scene.
The American Emperor store is a total loss, and by Monday evening, chain-link fence surrounded it, as a structural hazard to the neighborhood. On Tuesday morning, cleanup crews were out early, hauling away debris before the sun came up.
The fire not only displaced a thriving business, but more than a dozen people who live adjacent to it, who can't return home because of the collapse hazard.
"We are scared because we don't have family to go to," Eveline Solis, 29, told KTVU, as she and her family sought help at an American Red Cross van. "We don't have too much money, and there are five of us, and we need to find someplace to live."
The three-alarm fire sent up huge plumes of black smoke as building materials and fixtures fed the flames. Twenty employees were inside working at 8:30 a.m., but everyone got out safely.
"We saw whole electrical poles on fire, and so we started to run," said American Emperor staffer Keaton Ky.
A witness captured cell phone video, showing what appears to be the fire's start, in a debris pile behind the store.
Fire officials say it spread inside the building through an open window.
"It was a homeless encampment that was on fire behind here, in the street," said witness Anatol Dragsted, "and that started the fire, right next to a window."
Local residents say fires are common in the homeless camps along 12th Street under the elevated Bart tracks.
"It's a crisis, that's what the whole problem is with the homeless, it's a crisis," said Roland Chiesa, who lives in the Fruitvale neighborhood, and remembers vividly the tragic Ghostship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in 2016. "The homeless people get cold at night, and light fires, so these people today, they're lucky, they should count their blessings, because these buildings out here are so old."
At a longtime auto shop a block away from American Emperor, fires are a constant worry.
"Right across the street, it happened three or four times already, fires burning the tree, people running around," said Automax manager Dorian Tam. "When they live behind a building and they're cooking, it's not safe and we've complained but nothing happened, it's still there."
Tam and the owner of American Emperor are friends, and they spoke briefly as the business smoldered.
"He just told me that everything is gone. His face tells me he lost everything," Tam said.
For as long as the massive supply store is shut down, building contractors will feel the loss.
"Home Depot, they just don't have the parts we need, the aisles are a mess, you can't find anything," complained electrician Josh Mejia, stopping by in the late afternoon to see the charred warehouse he was loyal to.
Mejia said he has shopped there, almost daily for 16 years, impressed with the supplies and the helpful staff
"I never figured out who the owner is, because everyone was really polite, none of them gave you the 'I'm the boss' kind of attitude," Mejia said, "and now I'm going to go way out of my way to find what I need."
KTVU's Jesee Gary and Sara Zendehnam contributed to this report.