Firefighters and police responded to a six-alarm fire in downtown Berkeley on Saturday evening at a building under construction on University Avenue, authorities said.
The fire was reported at 2067 University, a new seven-story building under construction just west of Shattuck Avenue, just before 5:40 p.m. No injuries have been reported.
There was no information available as of about 7 p.m. as to how the fire started, but Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Keith May said firefighters from Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Piedmont and the city and county of Alameda were on scene.
Police officers evacuated buildings in the 2000 block of University Avenue up to Shattuck Avenue as firefighters attacked the blaze. Evacuated properties included an apartment building next door to 2067 University as well as the Nash Hotel two doors down, May told Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel on the scene shortly after 8 p.m. The block includes many local businesses, including Tender Greens restaurant, immediately to the east of 2067 University, and family-owned Milkbomb Ice Cream shop.
May said BFD first got the call about the fire at 5:39 p.m. Saturday. The building was “fully engulfed” when firefighters arrived, he said. The building was covered with a layer of “film” because it is under construction so it was initially hard to assess the extent of the damage. May said workers had been at the construction site until 5 p.m. Saturday doing concrete and carpentry work, neither of which typically involves welding, so it was not a “red flag” for a fire risk.
May said the blaze was classified as a six-alarm fire because of the density of the downtown Berkeley neighborhood and the proximity of the apartment building next door.
Pamela Miramontes and James SanAndrea, who live across the street from 2067 University Ave., said they heard screaming and initially thought it was homeless people fighting. When they looked out the window and saw a building in flames they “packed in a hurry” and ran out. “We tossed everything and ran down the stairs,” Miramontes said. “It took us three minutes.”
The pair were unsure where they were going to stay, but said they would likely find a hotel. The Red Cross responded to the downtown Berkeley fire scene to help those who had been displaced. Red Cross workers distributed snacks and water as they helped people find alternative accommodations.
Marsha Tolliver has lived in the apartment next door to where the fire broke out for five years. She works an overnight shift and was asleep when a police offer knocked on her door and told her to evacuate. She said she grabbed her bag, inside of which was her computer and her degrees, but forget to put shoes on. A member of the Red Cross gave her a blanket and a pair of slippers.
Another resident, who didn’t want her name used, said she heard screaming and saw smoke and left her home with nothing. Authorities wouldn’t let her back inside because they were worried the burning building might collapse.
First responders expressed concerns over the radio early in the evening that the building might come down onto University Avenue. The street was closed to traffic during the emergency response.
According to initial reports, callers saw flames moving from the second floor to the third floor, with white smoke showing. The fire was quickly upgraded to a two-alarm fire and eventually was classified as a six-alarm fire.
Authorities closed all traffic on University Avenue between Milvia Street and Shattuck Avenue, police said in a Nixle alert just before 6:30 p.m., adding: “The traffic in the area bounded by Shattuck Avenue, Addison Street, Milvia Street and Berkeley Way may also be impacted as well. If you are travelling through the area, plan an alternate route.”
As of 6:45 p.m., authorities were also closing eastbound traffic on University Avenue from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to allow additional firefighting resources into the area.
First responders have also called in PG&E, the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the American Red Cross, according to reports from the scene.
The site of the fire is where Vietnamese restaurant Anh Hong used to be located. Berkeley approved plans at the site in 2016 for a seven-story building with 50 units and a ground-floor restaurant. Trachtenberg Architects designed the project.
“It’s sad to see such a setback when the need for new housing is so dire and so much energy has been expended on that project,” firm principal David Trachtenberg told Berkeleyside on Saturday night.
Immediately behind the burned building at 2067 University Ave. is a newer construction site, at 2012 Berkeley Way, where work recently began to build permanent supportive housing for homeless and disabled men and women, shelter beds for homeless men, and transitional housing beds for homeless male veterans.
Despite the huge amount of first responder activity and billowing smoke at the scene of the blaze, life went on as normal a couple of blocks away, where people were enjoying dinner outside Revival restaurant and a band played nearby.
May said the last six-alarm fire in Berkeley was in 2011 when the Sequoia building on the corner of Haste and Telegraph burned down.
This story was updated due to the developing nature of events.