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Empty West Berkeley Building Destroyed in Two-Alarm Blaze: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday September 17, 2004

Berkeley firefighters battled a two-alarm fire in a vacant West Berkeley office building after the blaze was first reported at 4:25 a.m. Tuesday. 

When the last flames were extinguished 12 hours later, the building at 2332 Fourth St. lay in ruins, brought down by construction equipment after the building proved too dangerous for firefighters to enter, said Deputy Fire Chief David Orth. 

The building had stood vacant since a May 21, 2000 blaze that destroyed another building on the same lot as well as a building next door and damaged the structure that was destroyed Tuesday. 

The building had once housed the labs and offices of a computer manufacturer, and the owner had been seeking city permission to demolish the structure, Orth said. 

“The original fire four years ago began in a building used as a ‘burn-in’ room for testing computer parts. A heater started the fire which took out the testing building and spread into two nearby buildings,” Orth said. 

The other severely damaged structure, the Jetco building at 2334 Fourth St., remains a roofless gutted shell to this day. 

At the height of Tuesday’s blaze, one-fourth of the structure was heavily damaged and fire had spread throughout the buildings. 

“We poured in water from the outside, but because the property was at the end of the water lines, we didn’t have enough,” Orth said. 

“Initially, firefighters had to use ladders to enter the second floor windows and others cut in through the roof to fight the hot spots, but it so unsafe and we didn’t want to risk the lives of our firefighters going in to fight the hot spots,” Orth said. 

“The stairway had burned out and a penthouse on the roof had already partially collapsed into the structure, so we pulled the firefighters out and kept pouring water in from the outside.” 

With flames burning inside the walls at the core of the building, a call was made to the property owner with the request that he approve demolition of the burning area. 

“He rented an excavator and demolished about a quarter of the building and we ordered the rest torn down because it constituted an attractive nuisance,” Orth said. 

Even then, with the combined efforts of the crews of five engines and two trucks, the flames weren’t finally extinguished until after 4 p.m. 

“The main problem was the water supply,” Orth said. “It was a real issue for us.” 

Orth estimated cost of replacing the structure at $2.5 million, “although I don’t believe the property was insured,” he said. 

The deputy chief said the most probable cause of the fire was the band of homeless people who had squatted in the building. 

“There were several homeless people on scene when we arrived, and there was evidence of their presence throughout the building. The way the fire spread indicates that they were the cause,” Orth said. 

The homeless denizens had entered the property through a hole cut into the surrounding chain link face, he said. 

With that building gone, only the hulk next door remains from the 2000 fire. 

“The Jetco building has been a continuing project for the city’s problem properties crew. The owner’s been repeatedly cited and he’s accrued a substantial amount of fines, but nothing’s been done,” Orth said.