Firefighters rescue 4 people after 2-alarm fire in historic Cal office building

Witnesses described smoke billowing from the building and people hanging out of windows on the second floor.

Berkeley firefighters at the former Anna Head School, now UC Berkeley office space. Credit: Citizen reporter

Firefighters rescued four people trapped in a burning UC Berkeley office building on Bowditch Street and Channing Way on Monday afternoon.

The two-alarm fire, at the site of the former Anna Head School at 2420 Bowditch, began just before 11:55 a.m., according to officials from the Berkeley Fire Department.

Initial reports described substantial amounts of smoke as well as people hanging from windows on the second floor. UC Berkeley sent out multiple warnings advising people to evacuate the area.

Firefighters arrived on scene within five minutes and used a ladder truck to rescue four people from the building, BFD said. No injuries were reported.

The fire began on the outside of the building and moved into the interior, said Berkeley Fire Chief Abe Roman. It took about 20 minutes to contain.

“It wasn’t terribly big, but there was a threat to life,” Roman said. Damage estimates were unavailable as of publication time.

As of 1:45 p.m., firefighters remained in the area working to ensure the safety of the building.

Roman said the University of California Police Department would investigate Monday’s blaze. There have been at least five small fires reported on the property in recent years.

Occupants eager to return to see what may be salvaged

Deborah Freedman Lustig, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, works in the building where the fire broke out.

“It was quite scary how quickly it accelerated,” she told Berkeleyside. “I smelled a little smoke and then suddenly the first floor (where my office is) was full of smoke.”

She said one staff member and three students had to be evacuated from the second floor. All were fine, but “a bit shaken up,” she said.

“We very much appreciate the first responders who came very quickly to put out the fire. Now, UC Berkeley facilities staff are working to secure the building,” Lustig said. “We are all eager to get in to see the extent of the damage and to see what may be salvageable in terms of computers, books, and some archival materials. Apparently, there may be structural damage, so it is not clear when or if we will be able to return to using the building.”

Lustig said campus leaders had been “extremely supportive and have offered support as well as temporary office space to those who need it.”

She continued: “I’m very saddened by the fire, and I hope this is not goodbye to a building that has been the site of so much learning and intellectual community.”

Small fires have plagued Anna Head complex

The buildings, constructed in 1892, are on the National Register of Historic Places and landmarked by the city. But they are in disrepair: Roofs leak and maintenance has been inconsistent over the years.

The site was taken over by UC Berkeley in 1955 through eminent domain, with Anna Head School moving to Oakland in 1964, eventually merging with the Royce School for Boys to become today’s co-ed Head-Royce.

Paul Chapman, a former Head-Royce principal who has been helping lead an effort to preserve Anna Head, rushed to the site when he heard the building was on fire. He saw smoke billowing out, flames inside and firemen hacking out pieces of the roof.

Reached by phone, he was devastated and emotional and asked for a few minutes to compose his thoughts. “I am grateful that the Berkeley Fire Department worked heroically to put the fire out,” he wrote in a subsequent email. “I am really heartbroken.”

The building that caught fire is called The Gables and it suffered a porch fire earlier this year, according to Chapman.

The Gables, 1895-1923. Credit: Head-Royce School

There have been at least four other small fires in recent years reported in close proximity to the brown-shingle, redwood-construction buildings: in December 2020 and in June, August and October of last year. Some of what burned in those incidents — debris, cardboard boxes and a mattress — came from an unoccupied encampment, campus officials said previously. The worst building damage was to a breezeway roof and a second-floor door.

Chapman told Berkeleyside last year how much the fires terrify him.

“I’ve been in these buildings frequently, I know how vulnerable they are,” he said.

Cal: Too early to gauge damage to The Gables

A side view of The Gables, current home of ISSI. Credit: ISSI

UC Berkeley’s position has been that more money is needed to address deferred maintenance issues in the Anna Head complex. Campus spokesperson Roqua Montez told Berkeleyside it’s too early to gauge damage to The Gables.

“Once the investigation is complete and we’ve made a total assessment in damage, we’re going to look at how best to move forward in a way that’s respectful and responsible to the building itself,” he said. “We have to determine what makes the most sense for the building and the university, but the embers are still hot.”

Of the school’s original six buildings constructed over a 35-year period, three were built around a courtyard still prominent today, and all remain.

Three of these were restored by UC Berkeley after the university commissioned a 2009 adaptive reuse study of the school site. One was a cottage, home to the school’s principals and joined to an indoor swimming pool, that now serves as a student counseling and wellness center. The Alumnae Hall was also restored and now serves as a meeting hall.

This story was updated as new information became available.

Correction: A previous version of this story included a historic photograph of an Anna Head building that was not The Gables. We have replaced it with a photograph of the right building.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.
Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.
Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.
Zac Farber is managing editor of Berkeleyside. Email: zac@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: zacfarber.