Early Friday afternoon, a fire broke out at The Village campsite in East Oakland, consuming about half a block of the camp and sending a dense black plume of smoke overhead. Firefighters fought the blaze as helicopters circled the neighborhood.
Village resident Sean Mo said he was down the street at work, saw the smoke and came over. “It all happened so fast,” he said.
Abel Corral said he was in a tent next to where the fire started. First, he noticed that a tree was on fire and ran over to his area and grabbed what he could — two bags of clothes.
“I didn’t get that,” said neighbor James Moore.
“I didn’t get anything,” said resident Lien Tran.
Tran and a half dozen people were standing together across the street where a group had gathered with a shopping cart full of three or four small dogs. As firefighters with hoses actively worked to put out remaining hotspots, Tran said, “My dog is inside.” As the rescuers worked, Tran kept walking around the site, reminding people about her missing dog.
Resident Le Hung, who said he sells clothing on the internet to make his daily living, said the fire destroyed about half his stock. He said he would try to sort out what was left, throw out what was burned, and continue on. He said he hoped the people who caused the fire would be held responsible, otherwise, he said, the camp would “keep burning all the time.”
According to Nick Luby, deputy chief for the Oakland Fire Department, an estimated 10 to 15 tents had burned, and 15 people have been displaced.
The fire department is still investigating the cause of the fire.
Joe DeVries, the Assistant City Administrator in charge of homeless outreach, who was at the site Friday afternoon, said that no people were injured. Standing on a nearby grassy median with fire and police officials, DeVries called the fire “another example that homeless encampments aren’t safe.”
He pointed out that many of the tents had been cobbled together with unusual materials like the canvas from a billboard. “People are packed in there together. Thank God no one was injured,” he said.
And while there were no human fatalities, one of Tran’s dogs died, and was brought to her wrapped in a blanket by firefighters. Another one was rescued by firefighter Gustavo Gonzalez who said, “The little guy just popped up out of a couch.”
Dan Robertson, the president of the Oakland Fire Department Union IAFF Local 55, who was on site fighting the fire, said that homeless camps continue to be a danger to everyone in Oakland, including first responders. “We’re fortunate that no one got hurt, although the risk continues,” he said.
Oakland Police Department spokesperson Officer Johnna Watson said she was nearby when the fire broke out. At first, she said, the smoke was light brown, and then “instantly it was all black, a huge plume.”
“It just went in seconds,” she continued. “We thought the entire encampment was going to go.”
Village founder Anita de Asis, better known as Needa Bee, was busy responding to the fire and could not be reached by press time.
The Village site has been a volunteer-run city-sanctioned tent city since early 2018, and residents have already experienced several large fires, the most recent in September. That fire destroyed about a third of the camp and damaged the homes or belongings of 37 residents. Afterward, residents faced ongoing concerns about sanitation — including rat infestations and poor bathroom facilities — and vulnerability to theft and other crimes. Bee and other advocates have long argued that the site is overcrowded, and asked to be allowed to move to a different location.
City staffers had initially planned for the camp to move in November, because a nearby overpass was going to be torn down and replaced. Those plans were recently bumped to January. At a city council meeting in late October, DeVries told the council that two city-owned lots had been agreed upon: one at 3050 International Boulevard, where the city intends to build a Tuff Sheds “cabin community,” and the former site of the Miller Avenue Library.
At the same meeting, District 5 City Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents the area surrounding The Village, reminded the council that the International Boulevard lot is already slated to be developed into affordable housing by the Native American Health Center. But DeVries noted that the construction won’t begin for two years.
On Friday, speaking at the Village site, DeVries said that the proposed new Tuff Sheds lot will be “the next site for these exact individuals,” referring to Village residents. The new site, he said, will be equipped with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and more security. “Here, it’s chaos. It’s not good for anybody,” he said.
On Friday, Gallo repeated his concerns about the International Boulevard site being used for an encampment. “They want to relocate that encampment on 3050 International, which is in a heart of a community that we’re trying to build. These are people who have families, schools. I certainly will never recommend to relocate there,” he said.
Gallo visits The Village once a week to help clean the camp, and has previously expressed concerns both about the living conditions there and the effect the camp is having on the surrounding community in terms of drug dealing and blight.
“I’m not surprised this has happened,” he said, speaking on Friday about the most recent fire. “This will continue to happen until we as a city leadership and police department recognize what’s in front of us and deal with it. That place, it’s a complete fire hazard. Yet we allow it to happen. Joe DeVries sees it. We allow it to happen.”
The mayor’s office has recently touted city efforts to house the homeless, including the city’s purchase of “The Holland,” a residential hotel on West Grand Avenue that will be used to offer shelter and services similar to those already offered at the city’s Henry Robinson facility. Oakland’s city council also voted to allocate $800,000 to Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which also manages services at Henry Robinson, to provide “rapid rehousing” services to those who need them. According to a press release from the mayor’s office, the Robinson’s rapid rehousing plan allows for stays of 4 to 6 months, while BACS staffers connect residents to services for help with concerns like substance abuse and mental health care, and assists them in finding a permanent place to stay.
The BACS contract, the new building and other measures such as funding three new Tuff Sheds sites, will cost the city $8.6 million in emergency funding, which the council approved at its last meeting. Funding for the hotel building will be provided by Measure KK, which voters passed in 2016, authorizing the city to approve a bond that would fund infrastructure repairs and affordable housing. The bond is paid for by a property tax.
But city officials have recently faced pushback from camp residents and their advocates over the planned evictions of non-sanctioned campsites and the efforts to move people into Tuff Sheds cabins, which some have criticized for their lack of running water and other amenities, and because advocates feel people are being forced to move into them under threat of eviction from other sites. Last week, the planned eviction of a camp near Lake Merritt was thwarted when residents protested and camera crews arrived.
Through her spokesperson Justin Berton, Schaaf released a statement Friday afternoon saying in part: “The encampments are not healthy for anyone – least of all those who live in them. Today’s fire proves how dangerous and volatile the living conditions [are], which is exactly why my administration has worked to stand up Tuff Shed community cabin sites.”
DeVries said that “we’ve met with some resistance” in getting people to move into the Tuff Sheds sites, but said that Friday’s fire “may encourage them to do that.”
Staffers from Operation Dignity and the American Red Cross were on site, and said that people would be transported to St. Vincent de Paul for shelter. Caroline Kemp of the Red Cross said that St. Vincent de Paul had recently set up a winter shelter.
Several city councilmembers, including Rebecca Kaplan (at-large), Abel Guillen (District 2) and Dan Kalb (District 1) recently co-authored Measure W, a November ballot measure that would fund solutions to homelessness, blight and illegal dumping via a tax on vacant parcels.
“The very things that were failing here are exactly the things that would be funded if voters voted for Measure W. [The tax] funds both homeless services and trash services,” Kaplan said when reached by phone on Friday. “And the other reason, it would reduce the number of vacant and abandoned properties.”
Kaplan said she has also been working to get more sanitation services at The Village to clean up flammable trash. “[The Village has] been asking for regular trash pickups and the administration has not provided that. Despite me asking, the community asking, Gallo asking, they haven’t provided a level of trash removal that is acceptable,” she said.
Story by Sarah Trent, with reporting assistance from Ali DeFazio and Katey Rusch.