Blaze guts apartment project amid Oakland housing struggles

A massive fire on Tuesday engulfed an Oakland apartment complex under construction and destroyed four buildings in the latest of a series of blazes at large residential buildings in a city struggling with a housing shortage. A firefighter also suffered a leg injury but the extent of the injury was not known.

Investigators are trying to determine if the blaze that sent a huge, dark cloud into the sky is tied to a small arson fire that was reported an hour later in an apartment complex being built about a mile away, Oakland Fire Chief Darin White said.

The fire department is on "heightened alert and awareness" as officials look at a possible connection, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is helping with the investigation, he said.

Since 2016, at least three arson fires have ignited at apartment buildings being built in Oakland, all of which started in the wee hours. It comes as the San Francisco Bay Area faces a housing crisis that has failed to keep up with its booming population and priced people out as costs increase.

A fire two years ago at an Oakland warehouse illegally converted into housing also killed 36 partygoers.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said that while the cause of Tuesday's massive blaze is not yet known, "arsonists have been trying to burn down housing projects in Oakland."

She called on residents living near construction sites to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to police or to call the city's anonymous tip line.

"An attack on new housing in Oakland is an attack on keeping families housed in Oakland," Schaaf said. "In a housing crisis, we need to build housing as quickly and effectively as possible."

The large blaze was reported at 1:59 a.m. and burned for hours despite 90 firefighters and supervisors responding. Flying embers landed on a home that caught fire and had to be evacuated, but those flames were quickly extinguished.

Phil Kerr, CEO of developer City Ventures, said the development had surveillance cameras and a security guard on site "and still this fire was started and caused this level of destruction."

Four of the six buildings in the complex were destroyed, but the company is committed to rebuilding them, Kerr said.

The complex, known as the Ice House because it was built on the site of a former ice cream factory, consists of 126 town house-style apartments and was expected to be fully completed by 2020.

He said 40 people have already purchased a home at prices starting at $600,000 and were hoping to move in around the holidays.