Berkeley house fire at Benvenue, Derby still under investigation

"The owner was always somewhat of a mystery to most neighbors," one community member told The Scanner.

Berkeley house fire at Benvenue, Derby still under investigation
A house fire last week near Willard Park remains under investigation this week, Berkeley fire officials said. Scanner Insider

A house fire last week near Willard Park remains under investigation this week, Berkeley fire officials said.

On Monday, March 4, the Berkeley Fire Department responded to a call about smoke coming from a three-story house on the corner of Benvenue Avenue and Derby Street at 12:35 p.m., Deputy Fire Chief Keith May said.

"Our crews arrived at 12:38 and reported heavy smoke coming from the first floor," he said. "Neighbors reported that the home was vacant. Fire crews were able to extinguish the fire quickly."

No one was hurt and the estimated damage remains unknown, May said over the weekend.

Even though the home was unoccupied, crews found a substantial amount of property inside the home, he said.

Courtesy of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association

Area residents alerted The Scanner to the blaze.

"The owner was always somewhat of a mystery to most neighbors," one community member told The Scanner. "This house has looked abandoned for the past 20 years."

The home has at times been targeted by squatters, particularly since the owner, Warren Havens, died last year, the resident said.

There were some reports that a person with a scooter was seen getting into the house and "leaving in a hurry" around the time of the fire, he said.

Man charged with arson after Berkeley house fire
Berkeley police officers recognized Tony Weems from surveillance video and a witness photograph, BPD said.

The community member said the home used to be located by the Anna Head School on Bowditch Street and at one point served as a dormitory for the facility. The Scanner was unable to confirm that as of publication time.

In May 1944, the house at 2649 Benvenue Ave. "caught fire during construction … and suffered $1,500 in damage," local historian Steve Finacom wrote in the East Bay Times in 2019. "Berkeley Fire Chief William Meinheit, who was at a lunchtime garden party nearby at the home of Judge Oliver Youngs, hastened over to supervise his department’s response."

At the time, the large brown-shingle house was "being converted from a convalescent home into war worker housing," Finacom wrote.

Over the years, the address has been linked to court filings related to a business dispute Havens litigated in relation to a telecommunications company.

At one point, one of the apartments was listed as the address for a religious nonprofit called Varnashram Community.

According to various real estate websites, including Redfin, the house last sold in 1986 for $243,000.

🚨
Readers asked about this incident, which resulted in this report. Have questions about crime in Berkeley? Alert Aipsasiamedia.