Homeless encampment fire chars 5 cars, displaces tent dwellers

A fire that broke out at a homeless encampment in Oakland underneath Interstate 880 near Chinatown Wednesday, displaced people who are living out of their tents and severely damaged vehicles parked nearby. 

A fire battalion chief says crews were able to put out the flames quickly, but it caused quite a scare and rattled nerves hours later.

Around noon, a huge column of black smoke billowed into the sky above the homeless encampment on Webster Place at 5th Street.

Flames quickly destroyed three tents and burned five vehicles; two parked along the street and another three inside a large parking lot located  underneath Interstate 880.  

"All of a sudden, we heard pop, pop, pop. We thought they had ammunition or something over there. It sounded like gunfire," says Betty Rohleder who works at Leather Gloves Online Warehouse just steps from the fire.  

Rohleder says she later learned it was propane tanks exploding," It kept getting bigger and hotter.  We called 911." 

The fire displaced three homeless people living in their tents.

"It was really scary because I was asleep. Kind of traumatic, coming out seeing that towering inferno. All I could think of was getting out of there," says Henry Clayton, a homeless man who pointed to a pile of debris, the remains of what was his tent. 

By late afternoon, KTVU was there as one woman returned to her parked SUV after getting off work and saw the fire damage to her vehicle for the first time.

"I was like, 'What happened here?' I was about to drive away," says the woman, the owner of the SUV. Another young woman says she works nearby in Chinatown and that she parks here often. Flames damaged the front end of her 2015 Toyota Camry.

Her father came to help.

In Cantonese, he told KTVU that he's concerned his daughter's car is unsafe to drive. 

Another man parked nearby  says he feels for the victims. 

"When you get here at the end of the day, you find that your car burned down. Luckily, I was spared. I thank god for that," says Terence Ng, pastor at the nearby Chinese Independent Baptist Church in Chinatown.  He says he parks here two to three times a week.   

The fire battalion chief says the cause of the fire appears to be accidental.

"The arson investigator feels that it might have been started from cooking, again he's still investigating," says Battalion Chief Sean Laffan with Oakland Fire.  

Some who work near the encampment says it is causing problems.

"I would like to feel safe and honestly with all of this, i don't feel safe," says Mercedes Barker who works nearby.

She says she'd like to see police patrol this area.  An advocate for the homeless provided replacement tents and other necessities.