Update on dorm evacuations because of major fire at Southside church

Unit 3, barely visible behind the dense smoke, was evacuated when the church across Dana Street caught fire. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Unit 3, barely visible behind the dense smoke, was evacuated when the church, across Dana Street, caught fire. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)


About 250 students reentered Ida Sproul dorm beginning at about 10:15 p.m. this evening, the last of some 1,400 students to be readmitted to their Unit 3 dorms after being evacuated early this afternoon because of smoke from a nearby fire.

9:00 p.m. –  At 9 p.m. Friday, Norton Hall reopened to students displaced by a smoky fire that destroyed part of a nearby church early this afternoon. About 250 students remain to reenter the fifth and last dorm evacuated, Ida Sproul.

7:30 p.m. – As of 7:30 p.m. Friday night, three of the five Unit 3 residences – Beverly Cleary, Spens-Black and Priestly halls – had reopened to students after having been closed for nearly five hours because of smoke from a nearby fire. Because students may experience some residual smoke smells upon returning, they are advised to keep their windows closed for the next couples of days and to wipe down their window sills as well as other surfaces if windows were left open during the fire. Students may request assistance from custodial staff by submitting a work order, though residence hall staff will be working over the next several days to address any minor lingering issues.

For those students awaiting return to two other residence halls – Ida Sproul and Norton – lounges are available in Unit 1, Unit 2 and Maximino Martinez Commons. Water and snacks will be available in Maximino Martinez. Note that Cafe 3 will be closed for dinner tonight. Unit 3 students are encouraged to visit the Crossroads dining facility, located at Bowditch and Channing, for meals

2:30 p.m. – As thick smoke, ashes and spray from fire hoses swirled around them, firefighters battled a four-alarm blaze that began around noon and raged through the First Congregational Church near campus at Channing Way and Dana Street. UC Berkeley students in the nearby Unit 3 residence halls were evacuated because of the dense smoke.

People were urged to avoid the area and streets were closed to traffic.

Unit 3 houses 1,400 students in five buildings — Ida Sproul, Norton, Priestley, Spens-Black and Beverly Cleary halls. Cal Housing first advised them to close their windows, via email at 1:22 p.m. They were evacuated about 15 minutes later by the Berkeley Fire Department and Berkeley Police Department. At that time, Cal Housing issued a second message telling students that Unit 3 “is not on fire, however, there is a large amount of smoke” and that students “should stay away from the area until firefighters and police allow re-entry.”

The campus emailed an emergency Nixle alert at 1:38 p.m., advising the campus about heavy smoke in the vicinity of 2345 Channing Way. It said that “UCPD is recommending all persons to stay clear of a two-block area from Bancroft to Dwight and Fulton to Telegraph.”

The Nixle alert added that fire units were on the scene and again emphasized that everyone should “please stay clear of the area.”

Fire raced through the attic and engulfed the roof of an annex to the historic red brick church, which was built in 1925 and designed by Horace G. Simpson. Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief Donna McCracken said the roof of the annex collapsed and fire went into the roof of the church itself, likely causing smoke and water damage to the sanctuary.

Outside Unit 3, students were encouraged by Cal Housing to gather in front of Maximino Martinez Commons several blocks away. Instead, many were standing on the sidewalks grabbing photos and video and covering their mouths with clothing to avoid breathing in smoke and debris.

Water sprinkled the crowd as firefighters sprayed multiple hoses to put out the blaze, which was consuming the roof of the church structure. Flames could be seen in the burning structure, which is across Dana Street from the residence hall.

Ultimately, emergency crews moved onlookers away from the scene as the smoke and water became more intense.

“It’s crazy. I was just trying to do some work (in Unit 3) and, at first, I didn’t think we’d be evacuated,” said Kodiak Berkoff, a freshman who said he was in a lounge on the seventh floor when the fire broke out. He had to leave without some study materials, but said he was headed to the fraternity he was pledging to continue studying.

Lorenzo Cancelo, also a freshman living in Unit 3, never got to his room after grabbing lunch at the Golden Bear Café and trying to enter the residence hall. He said he was now without his laptop and just hoped he could “get his work done.”

Deputy Fire Chief McCracken said there were no reports of injuries or rescues within Unit 3, and that the evacuations took place because the smoke alarms went off. One firefighter who had to bail out of a second-story window when a burning structure needed to be abandoned was assessed for injuries but he returned to the scene, she said.

Around 3:45 p.m. the fire had been declared contained, according to McCracken. It would take “a couple hours of mop-up operation to really truly extinguish the fire,” she added. “It will be kind of smoky there for a while, and we will park two (fire) engines there overnight to do fire watch.”

Campus officials said they anticipate that students will not be allowed to return to any of the five Unit 3 residence halls before 9 p.m. tonight and would be alerted via email as soon as their housing was open for re-entry.

Lounges for students in Unit 1, Unit 2 and Maximino Martinez Commons will open at 4 p.m. today for use by Unit 3 students. With Cafe 3 in Unit 3 closed for dinner Unit 3 students are being encouraged to visit the Crossroads dining facility at Bowditch Street and Channing Way.

University Health officials advised people to avoid smoke inhalation by staying away from the fire area. People with asthma were advised to keep their windows closed. More information about what to do in the case of smoke inhalation is posted on the UHS website.