Squatters escape fire at unsafe Oakland warehouse

Investigators are working to figure out what caused a fire at an Oakland warehouse where people were illegally living inside.

The fire broke out about 2:30 a.m. Friday at West Street and Apgar Street near the MacArthur BART station. No one was seriously hurt but the fire department said the building has had a history of code violations and unsafe conditions.

The warehouse is not zoned as a residential building and was red-tagged in April for structural, electrical, and other fire-related hazards. Then in November, fire officials said without adequate fixes in place, about 20 people were forced to evacuate the building and not return.

However, at least six people returned and were inside when the fire broke out.

“This building had one way in and it was like a maze on the inside,” Assistant Fire Marshal Emmanuel Watson said. “It’s amazing that firefighters didn’t get hurt.”

Firefighters arrived to flames shooting high into the sky and taking over the building. The intensity was fueled by furniture and debris piled inside.

John Ayres was one of the six people who was illegally living there and returned a couple weeks ago after the order was given to leave.

“I was yelling at them [the other victims] through the smoke,” Ayres said as he tried to save a trapped woman. “I just put my hand out until I could feel her and then pulled her out.”

Firefighters said two people had to be rescued and one woman suffered burns on her hands. They’re being helped by the American Red Cross.

Investigators say a previous fire happened at the warehouse in 2014 and a person with the city’s building and zoning said new owners took possession of the building in 2017. Most recently, the warehouse was used for an estate liquidation business and storage.

The owner did not return KTVU’s calls or emails for comment Friday, but the assistant fire marshal said she was emotional and crying on the phone. The owner will be responsible for all of the cleanup costs associated with the fire.

Neighbors have complained about illegal activity in and around the warehouse. Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents the district where the fire occurred, explained he met with neighbors two weeks before the fire about this very building and corner.

“We have to make sure that red-tagged buildings that are truly unsafe do not have people living in them,” Kalb said. “That’s not helping anybody. They may think it helps in the short term but look what happened.”

The building has since been boarded up and a fence has been put around the property. Firefighters said they are concerned the structure could collapse. The exact origin of the fire is still being looked into by investigators.