Fire guts former branch library in East Oakland

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OAKLAND (KTVU/BCN) It survived one hundred years- until a fire many people saw coming. A two-alarm fire gutted a vacant landmark library building in East Oakland Friday afternoon but no one was injured, fire officials said.

Oakland Fire Department Chief of Staff Angela Pinon described the former Miller Avenue Branch Library at 1449 Miller Ave., which closed in the 1990s, as "a total loss."

However, she said firefighters believe no one was inside the two-story building when the blaze was reported at 1:49 p.m.

Witnesses say the fire stemmed from one group of homeless squatters feuding with another. 

"This is a center for prostitution, gang activity, drug activity," said Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, who lives just two blocks from the scene.

The city stopped using the structure as a library in the late '70s, and mothballed it completely after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

In recent years, it has become a known neighborhood trouble spot. 

Gallo described ongoing complaints and a battle to rid the building of a dozen squatters.  

Oakland fire engineer Charleton Lightfoot said the fire was controlled by about 3 p.m. but said crews will remain at the scene throughout the night because it was a large blaze and isn't completely out.

Lightfoot said firefighters haven't yet entered the building because they're waiting for city engineers to examine its structural integrity and determine if it's same for them to go inside.

Lightfoot said the cause of the fire hasn't yet been determined because fire investigators haven't gone inside yet.

Gallo, who represents the area, said he was told that there was a fight between two groups at the abandoned building this morning and the group that was kicked out came back and set the building on fire.

Gallo said, "I believe it was deliberately set."

Pinon said there was a two-alarm fire at the same building last April 25 in which a firefighter suffered a broken ankle and was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

According to the website, the Miller Avenue Branch Library is a Spanish Colonial Revival-style building and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been named an Oakland city landmark.

The website says the library was built in 1914 but was boarded up after the city decided in the 1990s that it needed major seismic upgrades but didn't have the funds to make the upgrades.

Gallo said he had just met with Oakland Public Works Director Jason Mitchell this morning to discuss ongoing problems at the building, which he claimed prostitutes and gang members in the neighborhood have been using to turn tricks and do drugs. Gallo also said homeless people have been sleeping at the building because of the recent cold spell.

The councilman said he and other people in the neighborhood clean up the area every weekend and last weekend they saw about a dozen people at the building who were carrying guns and shooting heroin into their veins.

Gallo said Public Works officials periodically board up the building and kick people out but people keep coming back.

"We keep sealing the property, reporting the property," said Gallo, "and the police come here on a daily basis after the last fire, but people keep breaking in overnight."

Although fire officials said they don't think anyone was in the building when the fire started Gallo said it wouldn't surprise him if authorities found someone dead inside the building once they go inside.

"When you don't have anyplace to go, it's safe, and it has a door," Erica Wilson told KTVU, standing outside the burned structure and clutching a small bag of clothing.  

Wilson, 40, said she pitched her tent in the library a year ago, after moving to Oakland from Oklahoma.

She claims police saw people camped in the building, but ignored them.   

"They just shoo you inside. You can't have tents outside, but they'd let you be inside," Wilson said. 
She also confirms what neighbors claimed: Friday's fire was intentionally-set, after a fight between dueling factions. 

For months, newcomers have been trying to shove longtime squatters out.  

"Yesterday my tent was set on fire, and that was the only place I had to go to get away from all the feuding," said Wilson, "and now I have nowhere." 

A neighbor, identifying himself only as Oscar, expressed disgust with the city's handling of the property.

"This building has caught fire three times, the city watched it happen, and they've never secured the building," he complained. 

Oscar believes the last hope for the building was during the Occupy movement in 2012. 

He and other neighborhood residents entered the library, cleaned up the empty rooms, brought back books and tried to create a community space.

Police moved in and they were removed the same day. 

Since then, Oscar says, the building has continued to fall into disrepair as "surplus city property."  

"So many things it could have been, the city could have made those things happen, and this is what they chose," he said. 

Gallo said a Baptist Church and several other churches have expressed interest in renovating the building but the cost of doing so was too high because of the building's landmark status.

Gallo said if the building, which is on public land, is torn down it will be easier for a group to develop the site.

"We will get more offers because people won't have to deal with the landmark situation," Gallo said.

Oakland was an early pioneer, offering free community libraries, and the Miller Avenue branch was one of several built with Carnegie grants. 

"That building's been here since I was a kid," said resident Terry Rivers, who ran from his job at a nearby auto shop, to shoot cell phone video as the library burned. 

It seemed to him, the longtime squatters were trying to take care of the property.   

"I seen them giving away books there, they open it up, people walk through, they even plant flowers. I don't know what happened today."