A three-alarm fire at a Palo Alto home owned by billionaire Google co-founder Larry Page has neighbors demanding answers on whether the California mansion was being used unlawfully as an office for tech workers.
On Tuesday night, firefighters responded to a blaze at the 6-bedroom, 5.5-bath home, which per county records has an assessed value of more than $10 million. Fire officials say crews were dispatched to the Bryant Street property at 8:10 p.m., after a neighbor who was away at the time spotted trouble on a security camera.
The identity of the 911 caller remains unclear. But a fire dispatcher said one caller saw gray smoke on a door camera, according to a radio call on the website Broadcastify, and neighbors told us they heard a loud popping sound which they believed came from shattered windows.
Dozens of vehicles swarmed the neighborhood, where Page owns multiple properties, with a robust showing from Palo Alto Police, the fire departments of Mountain View and Santa Clara County, and the volunteer group Santa Clara County Fire Associates.
According to Palo Alto Online, which first reported on the fire, one neighbor said the home was owned by “Page or Google itself” and being used during the day as an office for a small group of employees. Indeed, public records indicate the property is owned by an LLC that has shared two addresses with Page’s family foundation, but it’s not entirely clear who is currently using or living at the property.
Google did not return messages by press time.
A person with knowledge of the property told The Daily Beast that Page bought the home in recent years and has used it as a guest house. And neighbor Rebecca Eisenberg, who took a video of the incident, described the building as a “guest cottage.”
No one was home when the fire started, and no one was seriously injured, Deputy Fire Chief Kevin McNally told The Daily Beast. Two firefighters, however, sustained minor injuries that didn’t require medical attention.
“Crews arrived to find heavy fire on three sides of the structure and on both stories,” noted one Facebook post from the Palo Alto Fire Department. “Additionally, flames from the fire threatened tall trees on one side of the structure.”
The cause of the inferno in Old Palo Alto—an affluent neighborhood that Apple mogul Steve Jobs once called home—is under investigation. “Initial knock down of the fire happened about 25 minutes into the incident,” McNally said. “Fire crews remained on scene until the early hours of the morning to put out hot spots and to monitor the scene.”
McNally said the first and second floors in the back of the structure, as well as the attic, were significantly damaged.
But in wake of the incident, some neighbors argued over what they perceived as authorities’ aggressive response, while others challenged whether the property’s present use adhered to local zoning laws.
Within a few hours of the blaze, flames were not visible from the street, according to two people present at the site.
“He owns what feels like most of that block,” Eisenberg, a former city council candidate who previously served as general counsel at Reddit, told The Daily Beast.
“In the context of a fire department that is operating on a reduced budget with fewer engines and fewer firefighters, we have a billionaire whose small fire—at least non-visible fire—created this extraordinarily expensive, publicly financed response,” Eisenberg said. (Despite being one of the wealthiest areas in the country, Palo Alto has faced tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts in recent years.)
One anonymous commenter on Palo Alto Online, the website for a weekly newspaper, grumbled: “I too was stunned at how many fire and police sped past my house on the way to this fire, totally ignoring stop signs. Do multiple police cars really need to speed full-throttle, metal-to-the-petal [sic], through stop signs? I get the fire engines, but more than 10 police cars?
“My reaction was also that it must be nice to be a billionaire.”
Another person chimed in that “overly wealthy Palo Alto corporate types residing in our neighborhoods need to take more responsibility for their negligence and oversights. The world does not revolve around their narcissistic egos and vast dollar signs.”
Still, not all residents agreed with some locals’ suspicions of special treatment for a Silicon Valley celebrity. One neighbor, Diane Christensen, said that during other blazes in the neighborhood, “the response was equally quick.”
She told us Page lives in the area, owns several structures nearby and guards his privacy. “He owns different properties in different places,” the resident added. “He has family members living in some of them and tenants living in others.”
“The homes are well kept, they’re good neighbors, and we don’t want to trouble him.”
Page’s network of properties in Palo Alto has caused intrigue for years.
When he acquired a complex of homes over a decade ago, he completed extensive renovations that included an enormous underground hole, according to two people who live in the area. The project raised concerns over how it would affect groundwater and stoked speculation that Page was building a bunker. (In 2010, local press reported on neighbors’ concerns about what appeared to be nonstop groundwater pumping from a Page-owned residence so contractors could build a basement.)
Over the past year Page, 48, has repeatedly popped up in national headlines. For months his whereabouts were a mystery, until Insider tracked him this summer to a remote part of Fiji, where some locals believe he may have purchased his own island.
Around the same time, news broke that Page had received New Zealand residency earlier in the year, after applying through the country’s fast-tracked process for the super rich. He’ll have lots of time to pal around with fellow tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who owns a 477-acre swath of land on the South Island. Thiel controversially received full citizenship in 2011, even though he had spent just 12 days in the country.
Page and his Google cofounder Sergey Brin are each navigating new life chapters. Worth over $100 billion apiece, the pair stepped down from the search giant’s parent company in 2019. They retain more than half of the business’s voting power, in case they ever change their minds.
— with additional reporting by William Bredderman