Oakland’s City Leaders as Firestarters

Posted on August 17, 2017


valdez fireOn July 7, a massive early morning fire tore through a seven story development in the heart of Oakland’s downtown/uptown neighborhood. It was the second fire this year in a similar construction site–a market rate development in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods–and the third in less than a year. Otis R. Taylor, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, summed up the prevailing suspicion that a human actor with a political grudge was at work.

“Another fire at another housing project under construction.I’m not the only one who thinks it just can’t be a coincidence.”

Indeed, just hours after the fire, Abel Guillen, the City Council representative for the district, also tweeted his assumption that the fire was politically motivated arson. The belief that recent fires in Oakland were the act of an anti-development, anti-displacement terrorists has been widely speculated since the second fire at the Emeryville-Oakland border. Ten months after the first fire gutted the Holliday Development mixed-use project, a second, apparently started in the same area of the building, gutted the partially reconstructed site.

Both fires are suspected arson, and there is even an apparent suspect in at least one. With yet another fire in another development hot-spot downtown, its not surprising that Oaklanders look to find a rational actor for the unusual fires. Not many locals can remember any period with this many construction fires happening in such short a time frame—the idea of a crusading arsonist vigilante is an explanation appealing in its simplicity and logic.

But whether or not a human actor is responsible, the spate of fires aren’t coincidental or random. Rather they are predictable consequences of corporate and governmental decisions made in the last several years. They all have one causal factor in common responsible for the ease with which the fires started and how quickly they raged.

Massive and uncontrollable fires in construction sites, in fact, have become ubiquitous throughout the US’s rapidly growing cities—Boston had two within one month of each other this year. There was another in Maryland. Outside of the confines of Oakland’s severely limited discourse on the fires, its common knowledge what these factors are. Economic and legal circumstances have caused an industry-wide turn from concrete to cheaper wood-based construction materials for mid-size development up to five floors.

The combination of increased height allowances for wood framed construction passed locally and internationally since 2015, combined with an almost doubling in concrete costs have led most developers to design framing with wood products. The result has been construction sites that are literally fuel for funeral pyres for a large part of their construction phase, and they are almost impossible to extinguish once they have reached their low-threshold for critical mass.

What this means is that there’s less benefit in homing in on a proximate actor, be they politically motivated proto-revolutionaries or thrill-seeking fire-bugs, than getting to the root of the problem—the buildings themselves, which are so easily set alight that no human actor is needed. The attention these fires have gotten has literally advertised to anyone interested in the process of setting fires that there is virtually no chance of getting caught, and that the ATF can’t even determine arson vs. random causes, as the agency recently announced in the Valdez fire downtown. The bar is so low that anyone with a fire fetish can get into the act.

For Oakland’s development crazy Planning Department, Mayor’s Office and City Council, the idea that some masked super-hero is capering from construction site to site setting them alight, a copy of the anarchist cookbook in one pocket and Marx’s Kapital in the other, has conveniently buried conversations happening throughout other US cities about the safety of this new gen of development. Shortly, after the Los Angeles fire of 2014, a site that was also wood constructed and deliberately torched, for example, the city council there began deliberating about whether to allow such construction methods.

Massachusetss officials and media began a serious conversation about the safety of wood-structure construction after two fires in such sites in two months. Even in London, the Grenfel fire has caused planners to double their due diligence and question whether wood construction is safe—even after the buildings are constructed and clad in fireproofing materials. But in Oakland, the subject has not even come up–a google search reveals the wood-construction’s contribution to the fire hasn’t been mentioned at all by the media, nor by city council or mayor.

This is truly remarkable. All three Oakland fires caused massive, in some cases, permanent displacement. The Emeryville-border blaze ignited homes as far as several blocks away. Miraculously, given the intensity of the fires, no lives have been lost. But, of course, it could have easily gone the other way and may still.

Given the level of development, the density of the uptown and downtown areas where most of it is taking place, and the inordinate use of wood framing materials, it should be incumbent on the City of Oakland to be looking for practical solutions to ending this danger. In fact, the key to stopping these fires doesn’t lie at all in investigations as to the putative actor or cause. The city could stop any possibility of such fires happening with the stroke of a pen from the Planning Department, barring, at least for the time being, all construction with substantial wood framing.

The evidence for doing so would be clear and the arguments against taking such measures are weak. Cost cutting, of course, would be no defense. Every one of these construction site fires in Oakland in the past year has been a market rate—and even luxury apartment—project with wood-frame construction. The cost-cutting measures that make these sites so combustible transfers no benefit at all to residents, not even those who can contemplate the sky-rocketing rents the buildings will charge. The savings are not being transferred to the consumer, the buildings constructed aren’t superior. In fact, there is ample evidence that having the cladding serve as the fire-proofing itself may make the buildings more susceptible to fires even after they are built. There is literally no reason at all to allow construction of buildings with wood-frame methods.

Regardless, in all three instances, despite the obvious contribution of building materials to the scope and intensity of the fires, the city of Oakland then immeidately green-lit the same construction in the exact same sites, including the Valdez location. The next fire in a wood-frame building may not be as forgiving as the last have been. Whether or not someone out there is taking political advantage of the fact that the city is permitting match-stick housing, the next conflagration is squarely on the shoulders of the city leaders who keep green-lighting massive development with dangerous building practices.

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