Arson Blaze Devastates South Berkeley Duplex

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:51:00 AM

A two-alarm arson fire caused nearly $200,000 in damage to a South Berkeley home early Saturday evening, the first in a series of three arsons on the same street that evening. 

Assistant Fire Chief Donna McCracken said the fire at 1711 Woolsey St. was reported at 5:17 p.m., and the first engine company arrived to find the front porch fully ablaze, with flames eating up through the eaves into attic. 

“They knocked down the fire on the porch fairly quickly, then took up the attic,” said McCracken. 

One neighbor reports that he had been fighting the blaze with his garden hose before the engine company arrived. 

“We managed to slow it down a bit,” he wrote to neighbors in an e-mail. “At some point my neighbor in the burning house came out the back door and got his tenant out, who lives in an upper flat accessed by an exterior set of stairs off the side of the house. The whole thing was pretty scary.”  

Firefighters called a second alarm after they axed their way through the attic roof and discovered that the space contained a maze of walls, which made battling the flames difficult in the early evening heat, McCracken said. 

“They got it knocked down in about a half hour,” she said. “There was extensive fire damage to the porch and the attic, and smoke and water damage to the rest of the house.” 

The assistant chief said arriving firefighters also faced another problem, a live power line arcing in the street after flames had burned it through.  

Firefighters finally cleared the scene at 8:50 p.m., said Assistant Chief McCracken. The emergency workers had to tread carefully, because PG&E’s emergency weekend crew was busy at another residential fire. 

Neighbors reported that the fire may have been set by children, but McCracken would only confirm that the blaze was “of suspicious origin” and is currently the subject of investigation by both the fire and the police departments of Berkeley. 

According to the Berkeley Police spokes-person, Officer Andrew J. Frankel, “While at the scene of the first fire, information came to light that there had been a second smaller fire set outside a home on the 1800 block of Woolsey Street, which had been extinguished by the resident.” 

Frankel said officers learned of the third arson attempt when, interviewing community members in the 1800 block of Woolsey, they were told that someone had attempted to set fire to a parked car. 

“The fire marshall responded to the scene and described all three fires as suspicious in their origins and most likely arson,” Frankel said. 

The officer asked anyone with information about the fires to call the Berkeley Police Property Crimes Detail directly at 981-5737 or through the department dispatcher at 981-5900.  

Those who wish to retain anonymity may call Bay Area Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS. Crime Stoppers calls are completely confidential, and up to a $2,000 reward is offered, said Officer Frankel.