Berkeley hills house fires investigated for arson

A 1994 Mercedes Benz station wagon, above, was destroyed in the fire on the 500 block of Cragmont Avenue, which broke out on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Joh/Staff
A 1994 Mercedes Benz station wagon, above, was destroyed in the fire on the 500 block of Cragmont Avenue, which broke out on Wednesday.

Two fires that broke out within 20 minutes of each other at residences about one block apart in the Berkeley Hills Wednesday morning are being investigated by the Berkeley Fire Department for arson.

While responding at 12:43 a.m. to a report of a fire at a home at 548 Cragmont Ave., fire crews noticed a second blaze just a block away at 494 Cragmont Ave., according to Deputy Fire Marshal Steven Riggs.

Riggs said it is standard procedure for the fire department to investigate all fires as being potentially criminal until it can prove otherwise.

“It’s not always obvious with fires whether it was accidental or if there was criminal intent or natural causes,” he said. “To be on the safe side, we will go in and make the worst-case assumption and treat it that way until we can rule out other causes.”

He added that the department does not usually classify the cause of a fire as arson unless it is sure that fire was set intentionally and that all of the elements for a criminal charge of arson are present.

Sylvain Bournhonesque, 80, said he was asleep at his home on the 500 block of Cragmont Avenue when he and his wife heard a loud bang. He then got out of bed, went outside and saw his 1994 Mercedes Benz station wagon — which was parked in the driveway — and the fence next to the car enveloped in flames.

He said that though the fire department responded quickly, his car was “totally trashed” and his garage door was also burned by the time the crew arrived.

Bournhonesque said he and his wife were upset by the loss of their car, which he said was “running like a new car” due to recent work on it.

“You feel fortunate that that was the extent of the damage,” he said. “Well, not fortunate, we lost the car. We’re very sad about losing the car.”

Bournhonesque said that aside from the damage to his car, fence and garage door, he and his wife are experiencing some trouble with smoke damage in their house.

The second fire appeared to involve materials on the outside of the building, such as miscellaneous combustibles, furniture and materials from a seating area outside, according to Riggs. He said that the building was not damaged during the fire.

According to Bay City News, Fire Chief Debra Pryor said in a statement that fire officials are “considering that it was a coincidence” that the two fires broke out at nearly the same time a block away from each other but that they are concerned just the same.

The residents of the two homes were evacuated temporarily while the fires were being extinguished, but they were allowed to go back into their homes after a short time because there was no fire or smoke damage to the homes, Pryor said.

Allie Bidwell is the news editor.