Authorities are investigating a series of fires that appear to have been set in dry brush and foliage outside homes on, or near, The Alameda.
A Berkeleyside reader tipped us off to the incidents, which occurred on May 19. He said he learned about them when a friend posted the following comment on a neighborhood website: “Yesterday I learned that 5 houses on The Alameda and Hopkins St. that had large trees growing close to the house, were set afire. Friend of a friend woke to the sound of what she thought was rain only to smell smoke, look outside and see the tree on fire. She called 911 and was outside with a hose but noticed that the fire department was 5 houses down dousing another fire.… They do not know if it is an individual or group doing this but for those with trees close to their houses having a hose already hooked up sounds like a good idea plus staying alert.”
According to Interim Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb, the Berkeley Fire Department was dispatched to the first fire just before 2 a.m. at Sutter Street and Yolo Avenue, near Hopkins Street. When firefighters arrived, the fire was already mostly extinguished, and they returned to the station.
About 25 minutes later, they received a call about another fire, this time near The Alameda and Solano Avenue. They arrived to find a 6-foot-square area of dry grass that had burned; it too was already out upon arrival, said Webb.
While they were on the call, a third report came in about a fire in the 800 block of The Alameda; as they made their way to that fire, they came across another fire also in the 800 block. A fifth fire, in the 700 block of The Alameda also was reported.
“The fires were all outside, in vegetation right next to the sidewalk,” Webb said. “It almost left the impression that someone was travelling along igniting them. The person or persons may have been on foot, just looking for dry brush, leaves, limbs from a bush that were dry and grass-type things.”
All of the fires were relatively small and pretty much self-extinguished, and happened within quick succession of each other. They appeared to have been set with some kind of open flame, such as a lighter. The largest area to burn was a strip about 8-feet-by-3-feet.
Fire and police investigators are looking into the incidents, said Webb.
The last time any kind of arson pattern happened was in June 2011, said Webb, when firefighters were dispatched to the 500 block of Cragmont Avenue, about a mile away from the recent incidents. A fire that started in a car had spread to a building, but firefighters were able to knock down the blaze pretty quickly.
A fire truck that had been sent to the home had to take a detour due to a particularly sharp turn; as the truck approached from the alternate route, firefighters happened upon a second fire about a block and a half away that someone had set using recycling left on a porch. The occupants were unaware of the fire, and flames were burning across the whole front of the building, almost to the roof of the second story. Firefighters in the ladder truck were able to use fire extinguishers and a garden hose to put out the flames.
Had someone called in that fire, said Webb, it’s possible its location could have been confused on the phone with the first fire, or there could have been a delayed response due to difficulty navigating that neighborhood’s streets.
“We saw it just by chance because we had to go the way that we did,” said Webb, adding that one of the residents had mobility issues and could have had trouble getting outside if an escape or rescue had been necessary. “It could have been a tragedy.”
Webb said anyone with information about the May incidents, or other suspicion fires, should call the Berkeley Police Department, using 911 in the case of an emergency, or the non-emergency line (510-981-5900) otherwise.
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