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Firefighters battled an early-morning apartment fire near the UC Berkeley campus, on Dwight Way between Fulton and Ellsworth streets. (KGO/ABC-7)

BERKELEY -- A spectacular two-alarm fire gutted an apartment building south of the UC Berkeley campus early Thursday, displacing as many as nine people and forcing the evacuation of nearby homes, the Berkeley Fire Department said.

The accidental fire -- blamed on a set of water heaters -- flared up at 4:13 a.m. at a three-story, six-unit building on Dwight Way near Fulton Street. It took nearly four hours for a squad of 32 firefighters to extinguish it, with tactics quickly shifting to a defensive fight from the outside after the roof and upper floor collapsed and made it unsafe to be inside, Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong said.

The occupants escaped safely, Dong said. Additionally, residents from adjacent apartments and homes were evacuated amid fears that parts of the fire-ravaged building might damage adjacent structures.

Imran Khan, a 26-year-old mechanical engineering graduate student, lives behind the charred building and was forced to flee with cell phone in hand and a blanket around his waist.

"A noise awoke me and then I saw the building on fire through my window," Khan said, holding a pair of blue jeans in his hand. "I grabbed my pants, but did not have time to put them on."

Later in the morning, Khan and other tenants were escorted by firefighters to retrieve things like laptop computers and shoes.


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A team of fire investigators probed the blaze, which displaced at least nine occupants. Dong said not all of the units in the building were rented out.

The fire started in a set of exterior water heater cabinets behind the building, but Dong said it was not clear whether fuel, electrical wiring or poor venting was the cause. Additionally, the construction of the apartments -- which predated the installation of wooden fire stops within the walls -- allowed the fire to travel quickly throughout the building and burn as long as it did.

"It creates these channels that can run from the basement all the way up to the attic," Dong said.

Officials estimated the damage at more than $1 million.

On Thursday morning firefighters could be seen on the demolished third floor, examining the heavy damage. A building inspector and structural engineer were summoned, and Dong expects the building to be red-tagged, especially considering that it no longer has much of a rear wall.

The American Red Cross was summoned to provide housing assistance for the displaced occupants.

Robert Salonga covers public safety. Contact him at 925-943-8013. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.