1501 Blake St. at Sacramento. Image: Google Street View

Three residents of a low-income senior housing complex in South Berkeley have been displaced from their homes by a fire authorities believe began Sunday afternoon with a visitor’s lit cigarette.

Water damage from the fire also temporarily closed Berkeley’s Mo’Joe Café, co-owner Adil Mouftakir told Berkeleyside on Monday. Mouftakir said the business, at 2517 Sacramento St., could re-open this week, but restoration work may take longer: “It all depends on the water damage and the time it takes to repair it,” he said. (Nosh will provide an update when the business re-opens.)

Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said it appeared, from BFD’s preliminary investigation, that the fire was an accident caused by someone smoking a cigarette. Residents from 11 of the building’s 40 units had to stay elsewhere Sunday night, he said, but most were allowed to return home Monday.

Brannigan said the call about the fire came in just after 1:20 p.m. Sunday “just as everybody was winding down” from the morning’s city-run wildfire drill. The incident at Sacramento and Blake streets initially was reported as a fire alarm. It quickly was upgraded to a full assignment of firefighters.

911 callers said there was smoke coming from the Sacramento Street side of Sacramento Senior Homes, at 1501 Blake St., which is run by Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA).

The first fire engine crew that arrived confirmed there was a working fire in the building, Brannigan said. BFD called for a second alarm to bring more resources to the scene, particularly because the complex houses dozens of low-income seniors. (The more alarms there are in a fire, the more serious it is.)

Firefighters evacuated most of the building’s tenants and were able to contain the blaze to an apartment on the second floor, said Brannigan.

Some of the residents sheltered in place, he said, depending on their physical conditions.

The fire, which was declared under control by about 1:45 p.m., was relatively small but the “sprinkler system ran for a while,” the chief said. That led to “significant water damage” on the second floor. The ground-floor café had water damage, too, said Brannigan.

Eleven units on the second floor were damaged, which stopped residents from getting back inside immediately, he said. Third- and fourth-floor tenants were allowed to go back into the building once it was safe.

BFD initially asked the American Red Cross to help displaced residents from the 11 damaged units, but SAHA “stepped up,” Brannigan said, to ensure everyone had a place to go.

Brannigan credited BFD Battalion Chief Bill Kehoe with responding to the two-alarm fire in a high-risk building — classified as such due to its vulnerable population — while avoiding any injuries or loss of life, particularly after the morning’s intensive drill.

Miriam Benavides of SAHA said, as of Monday, all but three residents had been allowed to return home. One is staying with family, while two others will be in a hotel “until we can finish remediation,” she said. Construction workers may need to open up the building walls to make the necessary repairs, she said, which could take some time.

Benavides said authorities believe it was a visitor to the building, not a resident there, whose lit cigarette caused the fire.

On Sunday, SAHA moved quickly, she said, to get maintenance workers to the building to “pick up as much water as they could” before the remediation crew arrived about an hour later. Workers vacuumed up the water and used blowers to dry out all the areas that had gotten wet.

As of Monday afternoon, Benavides said, SAHA’s insurance adjuster had not yet provided an official damage estimate. She said she believed that number would be higher, however, than BFD’s preliminary estimate of $13,000.

According to its website, SAHA houses more than 4,000 people in seven Northern California counties. Benavides said about half of its tenants are seniors.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...