Investigators suspect arson in latest Oakland construction site fire

on October 25, 2018

It’s the middle of the day on Tuesday, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the sky, which is still gray with smoke. Cassie Kays, a firefighter, aims her hose at some smoldering ashes, pausing intermittently to examine the soggy, charred earth that squishes and crunches beneath her boots.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Lieutenant Eduardo Ibarra, motioning towards Kays. Their engine, Oakland 12, was part of a massive effort to put out a fire early Tuesday morning at the Ice House development on Grand Avenue, the latest fire at a construction site in Oakland.

The needle? A timer, a fuse, anything that could help the firefighters and investigators determine the cause of the fire that many suspect – without proof—is part of a wave of anti-gentrification arson. Already, investigators have determined that at least three fires in the last two years were caused by arson. According to developer, City Ventures, the Ice House complex would have offered 126 market-rate units—with new owners set to move in as soon as December.

At a press briefing on the morning of Tuesday’s fire, Mayor Libby Schaaf suggested foul play, saying “an attack on new housing in Oakland is an attack on keeping families housed in Oakland.”

And some investigators on site Tuesday suggested there were reasons to believe the five-alarm blaze might very well be another fire set by an arsonist. But they all cautioned that at this point, any assessment is speculative.

And it is until an investigation is complete.

On Tuesday, fire investigators showed no signs of being rushed into a premature determination. Weldon Clemmens, a fire investigator for the city, was on site taking pictures. He had been dispatched to the scene at about 2 a.m. and was working with a team of investigators from Alameda County and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine the cause.

“I’ve had fires where I thought it was one thing and then it was totally different,” he said, cautioning against any premature declaration of arson. “It’s a mess and it’s going to be a major assessment.”

Clemmens describes himself as the type of investigator who can’t sleep until he has answers. “I’ll just drive and drive around asking myself what happened?” he said. “You go into all of these optimistically wanting to find out. Sometimes you will see something and know that’s what happened. Sometimes it just pops into your hand.”

In the meantime, firefighters from Engine 12 were still tending the fire all afternoon. Though he is hoping Kays or another firefighter might spot something that could help, Ibarra acknowledges that any evidence likely would have burned. If they don’t find an object that may have started the fire, they will work on figuring out where the fire started.

“As you can see this is not burned so much, that’s not burned too much, but the middle building is completely gone,” he said, gesturing to the wreckage. “If you were going to arson the place you’d probably think you should start with the middle unit, because that will probably get going the rest of the building.”

Ibarra thought investigators might bring dogs in once the site cools down and is more secure. “They’re pretty amazing,” he said.

Veronica Barclay is a dog handler, whose late Labrador retriever Bella was an expert in finding ignitable liquids and hydrocarbons. Based in St. Helena, Barclay and Bella used to travel the region to assist fire departments in investigations like this one.

“When my dog would find something she would sit and I would say, ‘Show me,’” said Barclay. “She’d put her nose right where the odor was and I’d reward her right there at the spot.” Afterwards, Barclay would mark the location with a golf tee and call in the investigators to take whatever material the dog identified and test it for accelerants. “Until you actually have it confirmed from a forensic lab, you don’t know for sure,” Barclay said.

It would be a much quicker process if video footage from Ice House security reveals anything. This was the case for a fire at a construction site in Emeryville in 2017. There, investigators used video footage showing a possible arsonist entering the construction site to make a determination of arson, though no arrests have been made.

Clemmens thinks video footage and eyewitnesses could be key here as well, though he is unable to comment on whether any witnesses have come forward due to the ongoing investigation. “Eyewitnesses and videos are the best thing,” said Clemmens on Tuesday, before heading off to join a group of investigators arriving on the scene.

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