Berkeley neighbors raise alarm after RV fire that likely killed dog

Neighbors say they were awoken by dozens of rounds of ammunition exploding and that a pitbull named Chapo was killed in the blaze.

Berkeley neighbors raise alarm after RV fire that likely killed dog
A fire over the weekend destroyed an RV parked next to James Kenney Park in northwest Berkeley that had been concerning neighborhood residents for weeks. Laurie Nardinelli

An RV fire over the weekend sparked an outburst of concern from community members in northwest Berkeley near James Kenney Park.

Neighbors say they were awoken by dozens of rounds of ammunition exploding when the fire broke out early Sunday morning and that a black-and-white pitbull named Chapo was killed in the blaze.

One resident said the RV's owner sped off in a different vehicle as the RV burned, and returned later to look through the wreckage.

Authorities were unable to confirm any of those details and said they do not believe the fire was suspicious. As a result, limited information was available this week from official channels.

According to the Berkeley Fire Department, BFD got a call at 5:13 a.m. Sunday for a possible structure on fire in the 1800 block of Seventh Street in northwest Berkeley.

"Another 911 call reported that an RV was on fire and engulfed in flames. Our first engine crew arrived at 5:18 to find an RV on fire with no threats to any structure," BFD said.

The RV had been parked on the west side of James Kenney Park.

The fire was extinguished and BFD said the cause was "likely accidental."

A BFD spokesman said Wednesday that he had seen no reports about the death of a dog resulting from the fire and also that "nothing was found that would lead the fire department towards ammunition."

Witnesses did say they heard "loud noises at the onset of the fire," he said, while adding that this "could have been a propane tank."

In recent days, community reports seem to have differed significantly from the information available from BFD and BPD.

One community member told The Scanner that she had seen the body of Chapo the pitbull, still in his collar, by the door of the RV after the fire.

And a different local resident told The Berkeley Scanner that she had played an audio recording of the initial explosions for a Berkeley police officer who had responded to the fire scene. She said the officer confirmed that it sounded like ammunition.

Neighbors said the staccato explosions woke them up in the early hours.

"I saw the vehicle and occupant before it was fully engulfed and called 911 because of the smoke and what I thought were gunshots," the resident told The Scanner. "I gave a witness statement to BPD about the occupant driving away like a car out of hell just before the propane explosion (leaving his dog in the RV). The neighbors are very upset about the City’s and BPD’s lack of response - lots of text threads in addition to what you see on Nextdoor."

She said the RV owner made multiple trips to load items into his car before driving away — but apparently did not take the dog, if the community reports are accurate.

Many residents said they were concerned about the death of the dog and felt there should be criminal charges.

The Berkeley Police Department said no criminal investigation is underway because the Berkeley Fire Department had determined that the fire was not suspicious: A police investigation is only triggered when fire investigators determine that a blaze was suspicious.

And criminal charges, whether for arson or animal cruelty, require evidence of malicious intent.

BPD said the RV owner did return to the block in the hours after the fire and that police officers had spoken to him. The man told police there had been an animal inside the RV prior to the blaze. No further information was available from BPD.

The burned RV in the days after the fire. Scanner Insider

Residents said they had been calling the city for weeks with concerns about the RV by James Kenney Park even before the fire.

Some neighbors had said they were worried about the pitbull, which was often off-leash with the owner nowhere in sight, as well as a sign on the RV describing the dog as aggressive. Others said they often smelled smoke coming from the RV.

In the days after the fire, neighbors wondered how long it would take the city to tow away the wreckage.

That concern was driven in part by the city's glacial response in dealing with the wreckage of a home nearby on Eighth Street where a fire killed a man in November 2020. (The slow pace has been at least partially driven by the complexities surrounding the property's ownership, some residents said on NextDoor.)

Community members also described other RVs in poor condition that had been left unaddressed for long periods in Berkeley neighborhoods.

This week, a local group called Friends of James Kenney Park sprang into action to urge the city to handle the RV wreckage expediently.

"The city failed to act responsibly to deal with the clear danger of an RV parked for weeks that was inhabited by a person who was unable to maintain anything like safe conditions," a group organizer told the city by email Tuesday morning. "This was a situation where we, the people, needed to step in and help this man. We didn't. So now we have a mess. Your collective job now is to remove that mess immediately."

By Tuesday afternoon the RV was gone, towed by East Bay Tow & Recovery, residents told The Scanner.

The burned RV on a tow truck Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Scanner Insider

But questions remained: The towing company told one resident that they were worried because there had not been a firm agreement with the city as to payment for the work, as well as the issue of how to handle the hazardous materials left in the wreckage.

"Does Berkeley not have a contract for removal of burned-out RVs?" the resident wondered. "We have had at least three in West Berkeley within the last six months. Oakland has such a contract."

She also noted that a towing company worker had picked up the RV in part due to neighborhood concerns, despite the uncertainties: He "said he picked it up because he lives nearby and realized that it would remain there for months unless he figured out how to take it. He couldn’t stand to see it remain next to a park."

Some community members said Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani's office may have helped prioritize the removal of the RV. The Scanner was unable to confirm that information before publication but will update this story if more details become available.

Other residents said they would like to see the council member do more to address similar issues in the neighborhood.

Where will they go?

This weekend's RV fire also touched off a broader community debate about how the city will handle the parking of motor homes in local neighborhoods, particularly following the recent closure of its "safe parking" program for oversized vehicles at 742 Grayson St.

The program, called SPARK, closed Dec. 31, 2022.

Community members say they have compassion for people who need help and city services, but that problematic behavior should not be given a pass, particularly when it happens near city parks and young children.

Residents also say they remain concerned about the illegal dumping of waste — the city has no pumping station now that the safe parking program has shuttered — and the uptick in RV fires, among other pressing public safety issues.

This week, local resident Bryce Nesbitt said he had pushed the city to install smoke detectors in RVs in the Grayson Street lot months before a fire on Thanksgiving destroyed one RV and damaged another there.

The burned RVs at the SPARK lot on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. Paul Kealoha Blake

"The SPARK fire was a wake-up call, and they bought extinguishers for every resident in the next few days," he said. "It's true smoke alarms would not have helped for that particular fire, and extinguishers might have. But the bigger picture is that most deaths [during fires] are people sleeping without detectors, nationwide."

RVs are "fire traps," Nesbitt added, "and, because of the materials used like foam insulation, they burn fast."

Writing on NextDoor, community member Carole Marasovic — who is also the chair of Berkeley's Homeless Commission — said she hopes the city will work to ensure services are in place for those who need them, and also that safety protocols will be part of the plan.

"Berkeley needs another RV lot overseen by a provider. The RVs should have safety inspections and fire extinguishers," she wrote. "Legally, people have a right to use RVs as shelter. Waste management should be addressed.  Safety concerns should be addressed. Let's not stereotype all RV dwellers but address the individual concerns."

Readers asked us to look into this incident, which resulted in this report. Have questions about crime and public safety concerns in Berkeley? Alert The Berkeley Scanner.