Fire crews doused flames at a West Oakland encampment fire on Monday, July 11, 2022. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

A large fire destroyed several vehicles, RVs, shelters, and debris at a homeless encampment under I-880 near Wood Street and 34th Street Monday morning.

The blaze, which started around 10:20 a.m., led residents of the camp to evacuate while propane cylinders exploded and flames spread under the freeway bridges.

Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Michael Hunt said there weren’t any reported injuries. But OFD estimated that 20 shelters or more may have been destroyed.

A dense black cloud of smoke, visible from miles away, billowed from burning vehicles and an old trestle bridge near the BNSF railroad tracks.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District had already issued an advisory for the region on Monday, warning of smoke from a wildfire burning in the Sierra Nevada. Smoke from the West Oakland fire wafted into South Berkeley, downtown, and East Oakland, worsening air quality.

The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, closed I-80 westbound to I-880 southbound and I-80 to I-580 in the eastbound direction due to the fire’s location beneath the highway bridges.

Around 12:30 p.m., a structural engineer from Caltrans arrived on the scene to assess the damage.

OFD Chief Reginald Freeman said that crews and others will need to inspect highway infrastructure and the old railroad trestle for structural integrity. “I would not be surprised if there is a collapse of the old wooden structure because of the number of times that system has been involved in a fire,” Freeman told reporters about the railroad bridge that burned. That structure is owned by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, OFD said.

The Wood Street encampment has been the site of dozens of fires in recent months, including 90 that occurred on the blocks between 34th Street and West Grand Avenue between the springs of 2021 and 2022. In April, a fire killed a man who couldn’t flee his RV in time.

Much of the area is owned by Caltrans, which for months has been undertaking an effort to clear the homeless camps on its property. Fires there can be challenging to extinguish because there is no hydrant located under the freeway.

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.

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.