Oakland warehouse fire may have started at homeless encampment

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At least 20 employees and customers were safely evacuated from a 3-alarm fire at the American Emperor warehouse in East Oakland that one witness said started near a homeless encampment and is now considered a total loss.

“It started real quick. We were inside. It was real quick,” said employee Keaton Ky.

Starting about 8:30 a.m., flames were seen shooting out the windows of the 2-story building at E. 12th Street and 19th Avenue and people also saw large, black plumes of smoke billowing in the skyline above Interstate Highway 880. The sounds of explosions could be heard from inside the warehouse as firefighters worked furiously to keep the blaze from spreading to a nearby building under construction. Long before noon, firefighters had a handle on the spread of the flames.

“It was a homeless encampment that was on fire behind here in the street. And it started the fire, it was right next to a window,” said Anatol Dragstedt, who saw the flames in its infancy.

Firefighters did not immediately comment on Dragstedt's claim, but they did say the  flames started outside the building and spread inside through an open window.

Dragstedt  provided cell phone video, which appears to show the beginning stages of the blaze and which fire investigators began scrutinizing for clues, 

Deputy Fire Chief Melinda Drayton said favorable conditions and a coordinated effort to prevent the spread of flames to a neighboring construction site kept the fire contained to the building of origin. Still, she said, the warehouse was essentially destroyed. 

“Just a great all-hands supply warehouse, and now considered a total loss,”  Drayton said.

The blaze impacted power lines and caused about 16,000 Comcast customers to lose service, according to Comcast spokeswoman Joan Hammel. Crews are working on running a temporary service line to affected areas to restore service by 6 p.m.

American Emperor was founded in 1983. It has six California locations in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Concord and Orange. The company provides plumbing, electrical, lighting fixtures, HVAC and building material supplies.