Cause of car fire at Berkeley Trader Joe’s unknown

A car fire broke out at Trader Joe's in Berkeley on Friday. Photo: Greg Merritt
A car fire broke out in the first-story parking garage at Trader Joe’s in Berkeley on Friday, June 21. Photo: Greg Merritt

Update, Aug. 12: Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb told Berkeleyside in late June that, counter to comments made to this story, the involved automobile was not “an old poorly conditioned vehicle: It was late 90s, fairly old, but in really good condition inside and out.” The driver had pulled into the garage, then noticed white smoke coming from the hood after getting out of the car. The driver went to open the hood and, as soon as she pulled the release, she saw black smoke and flames. Someone else called the fire department immediately and, just as firefighters were arriving, there were enough flames to activate the sprinkler system.

Webb said the driver was an elderly woman who had a friend in the passenger seat, and that the fire department was called right away: “They didn’t leave the building to go shopping. It wasn’t a negligent activity.”

There were so many firefighters on scene, he said, because it was a residential structure.

Webb said an issue related to the electrical wires likely caused the fire, and that it appeared to be a mechanical malfunction. He also noted that, because it did not appear any crime had been committed, the ultimate cause is left to be determined privately between the vehicle owner and the insurance company.

Generally speaking, he said, people who notice smoke coming from a car while still behind the wheel should park in an outside area away from other hazards, such as trees or power lines. It’s good to be away from traffic, he said, but ultimately it depends on the conditions around when the incident takes place.

Original story, June 24: Authorities closed the roadway to through-traffic Friday evening on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at University Avenue when a car fire broke out in the parking structure at Trader Joe’s in Berkeley.

Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb said Sunday, via email, that the cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Webb said the single-alarm fire was reported at approximately 5:40 p.m. in the garage of Trader Joe’s.

The grocery store is on the first floor of a five-story building, and apartments are located above it. The garage entrance is on Berkeley Way, behind the main entrance to Trader Joe’s on University Avenue.

Said Greg Merritt, who shared this photo with Berkeleyside, "This is early on; you can just see the smoke at the far end. [The] cloud grew quite large within a few minutes."
Said Greg Merritt, who shared this photo with Berkeleyside, “This is early on; you can just see the smoke at the far end. [The] cloud grew quite large within a few minutes.”
Four engines, one truck, one ambulance and one duty chief responded to the scene. Webb said the fire activated the building’s fire sprinkler system as firefighters were arriving.

Trader Joe’s and the apartments were evacuated as a result of the incident.

Webb said the fire was brought under control quickly. There was no fire damage to the building, and minimal smoke got into the structure.

Photo: Greg Merritt
Trader Joe’s and the apartments above it were evacuated as a result of the fire. Photo: Greg Merritt

Some water run-off from the fire sprinklers and hose streams drained into the grocery store, he added.

Firefighters constructed a make-shift water control barrier at the doors connecting the garage to the store, and removed smoke from the building.

Firefighters contacted the city of Berkeley’s Environmental Health Department to follow-up with the re-opening of Trader Joe’s, Webb said.

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Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.