Massive fire rips through West Oakland townhome complex under construction

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Oakland fire crews raced to battle a massive fire at a modern eco-friendly townhome complex under construction in West Oakland early Tuesday morning - one of a string of such fires over the years that have turned out to be intentionally set.

At a news conference Tuesday, Deputy Chief Nick Luby said it was too early to  call the fire suspicious but it was "under investigation." The East Bay has seen five huge fires in the last two years that have stalled or destroyed housing projects under construction.

Still, the word "arson" was in the air. 

"We do not know if this fire was caused by an arsonist," Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a news conference. "But we do know that arsonists have been trying to burn down housing projects in Oakland." 

She urged people to call authorities if they know anything about how the fire, which is now being investigated by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is set. 

"An attack on new housing in Oakland," Schaaf said, "is an attack on keeping families housed in Oakland."

The five-alarm blaze broke out before 2 a.m. at a townhome complex at West Grand Avenue and Filbert Street that was under construction called "Ice House Residence 2," built and developed by City Ventures. It's called Ice House, the developer said, because the site used to be a Safeway Market Creamery. 

The company's website says the townhomes are where "old meets new," and is a place that would blend the "upbeat vibe of art culture with West Oakland's rich history." The complex was supposed to boast an urban, solar, all-electric community. 

City Ventures' CEO Phil Kerr spoke at a news conference, thankful that no one had been seriously injured in the blaze. He said that while it seemed huge, the fire only affected a portion of the development -- nearly 50 percent was untouched.  Kerr said the plan is to continue on and rebuild.

Even before the community opened, he said that 52 families had bought a townhome at prices starting in the $600,000-price range. There are 124 units in the entire complex. It was also the site of a smaller fire in April, the developers acknowledged.

At its peak, Fire Chief Darin White said 90 firefighters were called to help and two dozen people were evacuated off Market Street as a precaution. Before dawn, PG&E also shut off power to about 2,200 customers in the area, which stretches a block. 

In all on Tuesday morning, Oakland crews battled five fires: Embers from the major fire fell blocks away, and "most likely" caused three small fires at two homes and a shed in the 800 block of Isabella Street east of the fire site, firefighters said. In the first case, a family living at the home evacuated safely. "We were sleeping," Ruth Benton said. "And the neighbors smelled smoke, rang the doorbell and woke us up. We got the hose and the firemen came." 

Meanwhile,  Oakland fire crews also on Tuesday were sent to investigate another fire about a mile away near the intersection of 36th and Peralta streets that is also being deemed suspicious. Firefighters said that windows were smashed and gas was poured into the building. The site was also under construction. It's unclear if the Peralta Street fire was connected to the other fire.

Housing, and the lack of affordable places to live in the Bay Area, is a rallying point for many community activists and those tired of rising rents and gentrification. It's unclear what Ice House was going to rent for, but many new apartments and town homes being built in Oakland are now fetching rents of $5,000 to $8,000 a month. The price for the Oakland units are not on the company website.

There were some on social media who blamed "Antifa" for the fire, and others were pointing fingers at homeless people living in nearby encampments. 

Since 2016, there have been at least five fires, three of them determined to be arsons, in the East Bay. 

In April, investigators said an arsonist burned down a 180-unit project in Concord, forcing 250 people in a neighboring apartment complex to evacuate.

On July 7, 2017, the Alta Waverly construction project burned down in the Auto Row neighborhood north of downtown Oakland. The project was set to build nearly 200 apartment units and 32,000 square feet of retail space. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

The Intersection, a $35-million mixed-use project under construction in downtown Emeryville in the 3800 block of Emeryville burned twice, in July 2016 and May 2017. The ATF ruled that the second fire was the result of arson. No suspect has been arrested. The developer, Rick Holliday, has said previously that the arsons were an "attack on housing," the Chronicle reported.

On Oct. 31, 2016, a massive fire gutted a three-story apartment complex under construction east of Oakland’s Lake Merritt at an unfinished 41-unit building on the 300 block of Lester Avenue. The ATF ruled that fire an arson, too.

There have been other large fires in Oakland's recent history as well, which have not been considered arson. 

In March 2017, four people died in a fire started by a candle at 2551 San Pablo Ave., a halfway house home to about 80 residents. The Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December 2016 killed 36 people attending a party. The warehouse's makeshift electrical system had been under a cloud of suspicion, but ultimately, the ATF ruled the cause of that fire was inconclusive. 

KTVU's Sara Zendehnam and Daniel Radovich contributed to this report.