A fatal fire tore through a section of the Wood Street encampment under the freeway Tuesday. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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A man living in an RV near Wood Street died Tuesday afternoon when his vehicle and five others caught fire.

The cause and origin of the deadly blaze wasn’t immediately clear, said Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Frank Tijiboy at the scene Tuesday, near Wood and 26th streets. 

Although fires at homeless camps are common, deaths are rare.

OFD sent crews to the West Oakland site after a call came in around 1:25 p.m. Thick smoke was visible from miles away, with some East Oakland residents inquiring about the fire online.

When firefighters arrived, residents told them that a man was trapped in his RV, Tijiboy said.

The fire was located on land underneath the freeway, owned by the California Department of Transportation. The closest fire hydrant is hundreds of feet away, so OFD had to stretch a 450-foot hose from Wood Street to the site. By the time they could start extinguishing the flames, firefighters were told that the man had been able to escape. 

But when they put out the blaze around 2 p.m., they discovered that someone had still been in one of the RVs. His identity has not been released.

Nobody else was injured, but five people were displaced. Two other RVs, a flatbed truck, and two cars were also scorched.

Later Tuesday afternoon, a small group of residents affected by the fire stood on Wood Street, stunned by the death of their neighbor and the loss of their homes and belongings. 

“I just saw him last night,” said a woman named Kristie, who was living in a trailer next to the man’s. She said the man lived on Wood Street for several months and the previous evening had joked around with her about a bizarre pizza-bagel combo meal he was enjoying. 

She said she and her boyfriend had just bought him new shoes, which he’d needed for a long time.

Kristie had been in her trailer when the fire started and someone pounded on the door telling her to get out. She escaped and frantically looked for her dog, Gus. He survived, too, and was lying on the ground next to his owner later that afternoon, licking soot off his paws.

Kristie was relieved that he was okay, but devastated that a pop-up tent containing her belongings was destroyed. “It was everything I owned,” she said.

The Red Cross was at the site of today’s fire, taking down the residents’ information and offering them blankets, funds to use toward immediate shelter, and counseling. 

Displaced residents wait to speak to the Red Cross on Wood Street. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Over the past year, there were approximately 90 fires along Wood Street, between 34th Street and West Grand, and the majority have been located on Caltrans property under the freeway, according to Michael Hunt, OFD spokesperson and chief of staff. Usually they’re either vegetation or vehicle fires, he said. 

The encampment stretches along several blocks of city-, state-, and privately owned land. OFD responds to any Oakland fire, even if it’s on Caltrans land, Tijiboy said.

“We do come here quite a bit,” he said, “and it’s always the same type of challenge” with water access.

Hunt said installing a hydrant closer to the camp could cost $30,000.

“Hydrants are extremely expensive,” he said. “For unsanctioned, unsheltered populations, the idea of who might pay for that is up in the air. We’d love to have hydrants lots of places.”

Encampment fires have recently accounted for about 12.5% of all fires in the city, according to a report by the city auditor that spanned 2018 to 2020. OFD responded to 988 fires at encampments during that time.

OFD could not immediately provide the number of fatalities connected to encampment fires in recent years. In 2020, one person died in an encampment fire, when her tent burned. It was investigated as a potential homicide. A man died in 2018 when his shelter burned.

Fires affecting RVS and other vehicles can be particularly hazardous, since they spread rapidly, Tijiboy said. 

“Try to get out as soon as you can—the chances of survival to someone in an RV is slim,” he said.

Darwin BondGraham contributed reporting.

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.