An Oakland firefighter takes down residents' information after a fire at their tiny-home shelter Monday. Credit: Amir Aziz

A fire Monday morning incinerated three tiny-home shelters at a city-run transitional-housing site at E. 12th Street and 2nd Avenue, across from Lake Merritt.

Nobody was injured, according to authorities, but five people who were living in the scorched shelters were displaced. A fourth tiny-home was damaged as well.

Oakland Fire Department Chief of Staff Michael J. Hunt said the cause of the fire, which began around 10 a.m., is under investigation. Twenty firefighters responded to the incident and got the fire under control by 10:30 a.m. Thick smoke from the blaze could be seen from downtown Oakland and neighborhoods around the lake.

The remains of three sheds and numerous personal belongings. Credit: Amir Aziz

Around two dozen residents of the camp stood outside the shelter site just after the fire was extinguished, dazed. 

“I was visiting with a friend when I heard an explosion,” said Mike Newman. He went back to the two tiny-homes he shares with his girlfriend and saw that the one they use for storage was on fire.

“My girl and my dogs made it out—that’s what matters,” said Newman, 60. But he was dismayed to discover that his six bicycles and collection of baseball cards were destroyed. He’d been accumulating the cards for decades, including over the time he was homeless. 

The E. 12th Street shelter—actually two separate, neighboring programs—opened three months ago, housing around 80 homeless residents on the same large city-owned lot. One side serves around 65 people, who mostly came from nearby encampments. The other 16-person site, where the fire occurred, is a “co-governed encampment,” where residents have a larger say in how their community is run. The nonprofit Housing Consortium of the East Bay helps manage both programs.

Both sides use Pallet shelters, huts made of plastic and aluminum. They’re designed to be assembled quickly and easily, for use as emergency shelters. 

This site is the first in Oakland to use the structures, and they’ve been widely seen as improvements on the sheds used at the similar “Community Cabin” sites, because they have heating and can house individuals, unlike the cabins, which residents often have to share with strangers. 

“Now we know these things melt really fast,” said Lara Tannenbaum, Oakland’s Human Services manager, observing the piles of charred belongings Monday. She said the city will put the displaced residents up in hotels for now. The Red Cross had been notified as well. Tannenbaum was also planning a community meeting at the site.

Twenty firefighters responded to the blaze Monday morning, getting it under control about 30 minutes after it started. Credit: Amir Aziz

At least one other city—Redlands, California—reconsidered its use of Pallet shelters after a fire there destroyed 19 of the sheds. That fire was started by a resident using a hotplate, according to news reports.

Newman noted that Oakland’s shelters are set up so close together that it didn’t take long for the flames to spread between them. 

Like Newman, shelter resident Lucy Brum heard a startling “boom” around 10 a.m.

She lives three sheds away from the ones that burned, and while she was relieved her home didn’t get destroyed, she was still feeling shaken an hour after the fire.

“These houses go fast,” she said. “Nobody knows what started it. I’m curious what the hell it was.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.