The Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay in Oakland, California suffered significant damages from a “devastating” fire on Saturday morning.
The Oakland Fire Department responded to a call about a fire on the two-story building on Clinton Square on 7th Avenue and International Boulevard at 1:11 a.m. on Feb. 6, according to Mercury News.
Last night while #thetown slept, #OFD responded to a fire at the Vietnamese American Community Center. The fire started in an encampment and extended into and destroyed the community center. This is a huge loss to the community. This center prepares nearly 10k meals a week. pic.twitter.com/pw2UZaYrLK
— Oakland Firefighters (@OaklandFireLive) February 6, 2021
Around 35 firefighters responded to the emergency call, and they managed to control the flame by 1:40 a.m. No injuries were reported during the fire.
The incident occurred just a day before the Lunar New Year Celebration at Clinton Park, adjacent to the community center. Instead of canceling the event, Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said the festival would proceed as planned.
This is devastating for the Eastlake and Vietnamese community. We were planning to come together at Clinton Park Sunday for Lunar New Year and will still come together for support, solidarity and safety for all our communities and in unity. Thank you @OaklandFFs. https://t.co/05KlOau8dP
— Nikki Fortunato Bas, Council President, Oakland 勵琪 (@nikki4oakland) February 6, 2021
While the cause is still under investigation, officials believed the fire was sparked at a nearby homeless camp, Bay City News reported via ABC7 News.
Shirley Gee, executive director of the center, pleaded with city officials for months to stop the open-air cooking at the camp and that her staff handled three small fire incidents in the past year, San Francisco Chronicle reported.
“It was just a matter of time before something like this happened,” Gee said. “I’m not surprised at all.”
Although authorities are still assessing the extent of the damage, Michael Hunt, a spokesman for the fire department, said the destruction was a “huge loss” for the community. The Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay provides help to nearby residents by feeding those in need, teaching them and offering immigration services.
“I have to admit I cried,” Gee told reporters. “I thought 2020 was bad, I was really looking forward to 2021.”
Gee said about 35% of the building was destroyed, including a computer lab that teachers use to teach digital literacy lessons. It was also unclear how much food had gone to waste from the fire as the center often keeps enough for 50,000 meals.
The fire also destroyed “the tents and the possessions of the unsheltered community who lives here, who are primarily Vietnamese immigrant men,” said executive director of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer Tran.
Tran is working with other officials to help find shelter for the nine unhoused residents.
“This is a time for us to come together to find solutions on how we could keep each other safe,” Tran said.
Even though they suffered a tragic incident, Gee said they would reopen the community center and continue to hand out 30,000 meals every month to 2,500 residents, mostly seniors and families in need.
A donation page was created by Joanne Garcia, a Freelance Language Consultant and ESL Instructor at the center, to help it continue to be the “beacon of hope” for the community.