New plywood replaces the fire-damaged wall of a boat bay at the Lake Merritt Boathouse.
New plywood replaces the fire-damaged wall of a boat bay at the Lake Merritt Boathouse. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

An unknown person was caught on camera lighting a fire against the wall of a storage facility at the Lake Merritt Sailboat House in the early morning hours of Oct. 2. The arson incident was the latest problem at the city-owned boathouse, which has experienced an increase in break-ins, burglary, and vandalism over the past month, according to staff that work there.

Video shared with The Oaklandside shows a person lighting cardboard next to the building and leaving the area. Three other people arrive later and appear to be trying to put the fire out, and the fire department responded a little while after that to extinguish the blaze before it could destroy the building and spread.

“It’s never been like this to where there’s break-ins and fires,” said James Robinson, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute, a nonprofit environmental education organization that has its offices on the second floor of the boathouse, adjacent to where the arson fire happened.

Video footage of a person lighting a pile of boxes next to the boat bays where boats and fuel are stored. Courtesy of Lake Merritt Institute.

Robinson said the area has always had its share of issues, but the recent break-ins started getting worse after a string of four incidents in five days in September. A steel gate leading to the institute’s offices was broken and a downstairs door leading to city staff offices was broken in half. Several windows were also broken and property inside the office was shuffled through.

Other recent incidents include two separate thefts of internet cable from boxes that provide web access to the boathouse offices. Someone has also been cutting the locks on the bays—garage-like enclosures where vessels and equipment are stored—and two months ago a boat belonging to a sailing club was stolen. Staff initially thought someone from the club was using the boat when it was discovered missing, but the vessel was later found in Stockton with its motor missing.

The arson incident, however, has staff at the boathouse especially worried. “There was fuel in the boat tanks,” Robinson said, noting that the fire could have ignited the gasoline inside the boats and caused an explosion.

In addition to boats and other marine equipment, the long row of boat bays is attached to several classrooms, including one used by Oakland High School students, and one that’s used for Sailing Into Science, a city-run program to introduce 5th graders to sailing and marine biology.

The nearby Junior Science Center at Lake Merritt has been shut since it was badly damaged by a fire in March. Authorities haven’t said what the cause of that blaze was, but found no evidence that it was intentional. Investigators did determine that it may have originated from a nearby encampment where city workers had seen people using fire to keep warm.

The Junior Center of Art and Science at Lake Merritt has been closed since March when it was badly damaged by a fire.
The Junior Center of Art and Science at Lake Merritt has been closed since March when it was badly damaged by a fire. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Robinson said the city plans to install alarms on the boat bays, but he worries that Oaklanders who use the center for recreation and education will be negatively affected if another major vandalism incident or theft occurs. At the same time, he said he doesn’t think “heavy policing” of the area is the best answer to the problems either.

The Oakland Fire Department didn’t say whether they had any more information about the arson incident or other recent fires around the lake.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.