Federal officials arrive to investigate West Oakland apartment complex fire

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Federal investigators have descended on Oakland's latest construction site fire, and will be there "for as long as it takes" according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

At a briefing Wednesday evening, officials refused to speculate on the fire's possible connection to previous ones. 

"We will treat this investigation independent of other fires," said ATF Assistant Special Agent Patrick Gorman, describing the 20 person National Response Team that will scour the townhouse ruins searching for the fire's origin and cause. 

"They will stay here until the job is finished because we empathize and understand how much of a serious impact this is," continued Gorman. 

Oakland's Fire Chief insisted it is too early to link the massive blaze to any others, even though they are similar, lit in the early morning hours, and targeting structures that are framed but not sheet-rocked and at their peak burn potential.     

"Whether it was an incendiary event or whether this was an accidental set, we can't be premature right now in our estimation of what's occurring," said Chief Darin White.  

Oakland developers express hope that the new fire is a tipping point that brings needed urgency to the various investigations. 

"The first things we need to do is catch the person and convict them," Greg McConnell told KTVU. 
McConnell is the President and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, which represents about 70 developers and builders in Oakland. 

"It's too late to have calming language, now is the time to identify this person or people and arrest them," said McConnell.

Members of the Coalition have an estimated 6,000 units of housing slated to be completed in Oakland by the end of 2019.

Thousands more will follow, says McConnell, to answer Oakland's dire need for housing, and ease gentrification pressure on older neighborhoods.

He notes some developers are now spending $50,000 a month on security, to avoid being the next target. 

ATF has probed some of the previous fires, in some cases concluding arson, and even capturing surveillance video of suspects, but without a breakthrough.

"We probably will need the public's help to ultimately solve this, but it is very very concerning for us," said ATF's Gorman, "because there have been tips and leads from the other fires but none of them resulted in any kind of arrest." 

The Jobs and Housing Coalition says more could be done to stave off further destruction. 

Speedier permits for sheet-rock would help, it says, especially in stairwells, where several fires have been set because they act as chimneys. 

McConnell also urged East Bay MUDD to expedite the sprinkler certification process so that the window of fire vulnerability - from 3 to 6 months into construction- becomes shorter.  

"I think everyone is trying to be care not to incite fear," said McConnell, "but if I lived near a building under construction, I would be fearful already." 

Oakland's Fire Chief said the investigation will move cautiously, describing the scene as "complicated." 
Alameda County Sheriff's drones helped capture 3-D mapping of the site, both during the fire and after.
Surveillance video from numerous security cameras may also prove helpful.

"I'd like to see this stopped, I'm very concerned about it," said Chief White, " because we need more housing so any effort to derail or inhibit it  is unfortunate, it displaces people." 

Answers can't come soon enough for builders, who feel under attack by what they call "urban terrorists". 

"They know construction, they know how to build a fire, and they know how to be stealth," said McConnell, "and this is a very crafty, very smart and very disgusting person or group."

The Coalition is offering a $300,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the Oakland and Emeryville housing site arsons.