Firefighters: Unattended candles may be to blame for blaze that destroyed Oakland Buddhist temple

Flames ripped through Oakland’s Cambodian Buddhist Temple in the 5200 block of 10th Street near Cambodian Buddhist Temple in the 5200 block of 10th Street near 52nd Ave. early Tuesday morning.

Candles have long been used as part of Buddhist rituals, but firefighters say unattended candles may be to blame for the early-morning blaze. Homes next to the temple were badly damaged. Neighbors are now asking some hard questions.

Firefighters say a group of monks left anywhere from 100 to 1,000 unattended candles in honor of a Buddhist New Year’s celebration before going to sleep at the wood-frame temple.

The three-alarm fire broke out just before 2 a.m. according to authorities and displaced 18 people.  

“It’s still under investigation for the exact cause, but there were approximately anywhere from up to 1,000 candles. That’s part of their tradition that they burn the candles,” said Ian McWhorter, Oakland Fire Department’s Battalion Chief.

Neighbors who are also Cambodian said they understand the religious significance of the candles. One man said he felt nervous when he saw them lit up Monday night. 

“Okay, I saw that, I [said], ‘Oh, that’s a bad idea. There’s going to be a fire,’ but it’s not for me to tell them not to do that,” said one neighbor, Chantha Tong.

“It’s not safe. You can always have something lit, but you have to be in control and be right there. Don’t leave anything by itself,” said another neighbor Enrique Barboza.

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working with Oakland fire investigators because a house of worship was burned down, but there are no signs of arson.