Neighbors paused to gaze up at the charred remains of a Victorian home on Eighth Street in northwest Berkeley on Thursday afternoon, while others set down flowers and shook their heads as they remembered Dennis Eimoto, a talkative and friendly man who lived at the home for decades.
Eimoto, who grew up in the city and attended Berkeley High in the 1960s, is believed to have died in a large blaze at the home on Wednesday night. The Alameda County coroner’s office hasn’t yet identified him as the deceased man, but neighbors who knew Eimoto believed he succumbed to the blaze after surviving another fire at this home in 2018 when he was 71 years old. His dog died in that blaze.
Eimoto’s neighbors told Berkeleyside on Thursday that he had continued to live at the house after the fire, but didn’t have utilities periodically and likely used a camp stove for cooking and staying warm. Fire officials are still conducting an investigation at the large, two-story home to determine how the blaze broke out and collapsed the structure. (Update, Nov. 23: Assistant Fire Chief Keith May said the cause of the fire did not appear suspicious).
Steven Riggs, Berkeley Fire Department acting fire marshall, was inspecting the scene on Thursday afternoon. He said the house was never renovated after the previous fire, so there were many overlapping burn scars making the task more difficult. The home has been red-tagged by the city, but there is no damage estimate available from fire officials, aside from the 120-year-old home being completely uninhabitable.
Little lawn gnomes, trinkets and novelty signs occupied the front of the house where bouquets of sunflowers, irises, roses and lilies accumulated over the course of the afternoon.
A car stopped in front of the home and neighbor Sandra Couture stepped out with flowers in hand, standing for a long time in front of the caution tape that had been strung up around the entrance. She and Eimoto often used to talk about her dog, she said, and the lawn gnomes that they both collected for their yards. She was concerned that he lived alone, like many others in the area.
“This is an affluent neighborhood, how can the city let this happen?” Couture asked.
Eimoto worked as a BART operator for about 25 years until 2008, according to state public records, and was earning a pension as recently as last year. After the fire in 2018, and again this week, neighbors expressed concern that he was experiencing mental health issues or drug addiction, and that he may have been being taken advantage of by visitors who would stop by his home.
On social media and in comments on Berkeleyside, some neighbors expressed guilt that they hadn’t been able to help him before the “inevitable” happened. Others said support services tried to reach him, but he ultimately became resistant to outside help due to fear that he would lose his home, and his lifelong neighborhood.
Stu Brotman and Catherine Moncrieff, Eimoto’s longtime neighbors, said he was markedly different before a decline that began about a decade ago that made it difficult for them to keep up with his rambling thoughts.
“At some point, he changed. He just couldn’t have a relationship with the neighbors,” said Moncrieff, who last saw him over a month ago in his front yard. “He just kind of lost his way. I just hope that he passed away before the fire happened.”
There were several occasions years ago when he went fishing and brought bought back large hunks of tuna for the community. According to Monterey County documents from 1988, he was also a fishery biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife).
Brotman added that, through it all, Eimoto maintained a “sweet manner” and a love for animals.
One neighbor, who spent time with Eimoto at the North Berkeley Senior Center, recalled, on social media, his “impeccable sense of style, and said though he had bad days that involved “screaming fits,” he’d later apologize and always tried to do his best.
“Suave enough to pull off a suit and a fedora when you wanted, and bold enough wear a Hawaiian shirt, jeans and a delicate pink flower over your ear the next day,” she wrote.
Kayla Hansen and Ezra Baum, both 19, grew up in the neighborhood, and said Eimoto was notorious for chattering away at them until they were almost at the end of the block. He was generally warm and friendly, they said, and enjoyed frequenting a Pakistani restaurant nearby. Sometimes, they would hear him angrily talking to himself as he walked around his yard.
Others knew Eimoto’s parents, who lived with Eimoto and his late brother at the residence throughout the 1980s. The family passed down the residence to Eimoto and his brother, neighbors said, and there seemed to be a disagreement about selling the property. Eimoto was very attached to the home and lived out the rest of his life there, until his death this week.
Deborah Williams, a next-door neighbor, heard a loud popping sound on Wednesday night and emerged from her home to see large flames enveloping the building. She prayed that he wasn’t there, but, like many other neighbors, believes he passed away in the fire.
“He always gave me lots of compliments on raising my grandchildren, and all the generations that came up on through here over the years,” Williams said, “It’s very devastating, he was a very sweet guy.”
A candlelit vigil is planned for Eimoto at 5 p.m. on Saturday around the home.