S.F. Fire Officials Try to Quell Concerns About Blazes in Mission District

San Francisco firefighters work to contain a November blaze at a tire and wheel shop at 16th and Shotwell streets. An adjacent apartment building was badly damaged, displacing about 20 residents. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

The San Francisco Fire Department is trying to quell neighborhood concerns that a wave of arson is behind a rising number of fires in the city’s Mission District this year.

The department took the unusual step Monday of publishing the number of blazes that caused major property damage in each of the city’s Board of Supervisors districts since 2012 — with a special emphasis on such incidents in the Mission. The report says that over the last four years, investigators have identified just one intentionally set “property damage fire” in the neighborhood.

As of last week, the department said, the number of property damage fires this year in supervisorial District 9, made up primarily of the Mission and Bernal Heights, stood at 20. According to the report compiled by Jonathan Baxter, the Fire Department’s spokesman, more than 60 fires in the district have caused property damage over the last four years: 10 in 2012, 18 in 2013, 15 in 2014 and the 20 so far this year.

Last Thursday, the city’s Fire Commission discussed suspicions voiced by some in the Mission that some recent fires in the district were deliberately set. According to a count by news site Mission Local, the fires have displaced 130 residents at a time when both rents and the number of evictions in the district are rising.

Fire Marshal Daniel De Cossio told the commission that the number of fires in the Mission “fluctuates up and down, but it’s relatively consistent.”

De Cossio said investigations have shown that most of the fires in the district over the last several years are not arson-related.

“I’ve looked at investigations that have been closed out, at the cause of the fires,” De Cossio said. “The majority of them are electrical, accidental or at this point undetermined. So as far as knowing whether they’re arson or not, I’m not ready to go there yet.”

In reply to a question from Commissioner Frances Covington, De Cossio said that the Fire Department continues to work through a backlog of fire investigations — 325 citywide, down from 407 earlier in the fall. But he told Covington he didn’t have a breakdown for how many of the open investigations are for properties in the Mission.

The lack of definitive data aside, Covington said she wants to put fears about the origin of fires in the district to rest.

“There seems to be something out there in the larger community where the idea of arson in the Mission is at a nexus with gentrification, with all the other things that are going on,” said commission member Frances Covington. “I think we really need to tamp that down as much as we can. Otherwise, if this continues — and I don’t know how it got started — but we really have to let people know that as far as the Fire Department knows, there is not an active arsonist in the Mission.”

Citywide, the report released Monday said, there were 853 property damage fires that took place over the last four years. Fifty-two of them were classified as arson. Baxter, the department spokesman, noted that the national average for intentionally set fires is between 9 percent and 10 percent, whereas in San Francisco, it’s around 6 percent.

The district with the most fires during that snapshot was District 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and Potrero Hill. During that time there were 153 fires, and 12 of them were considered arson.

In District 6, which includes SOMA, the Tenderloin, and Mid-Market, among other neighborhoods, there were 141 property damage blazes and 12 of them were considered intentional.

There have been two deadly fires in the Mission District this year that led to scrutiny of the Fire Department’s inspection and investigation system and a push to tighten regulations for the city’s older apartment buildings, where rules regarding fire safety systems like sprinklers are less stringent.

A blaze at 22nd and Mission streets killed one man in January. Fire officials say they believe an electrical problem in the building sparked the blaze.

A fire at 24th Street and Treat Avenue killed a father and daughter in March. The department has yet to release the full investigative report on that blaze.

Early next year the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a set of fire safety proposals authored by a group of city officials created in the wake of the Mission blazes as well as a number of other fires in other parts of the city.

S.F. Fire Officials Try to Quell Concerns About Blazes in Mission District 21 December,2015Ted Goldberg

  • MPetrelis

    Thanks for making good use of the video I shot at the December 17 fire commission meeting. Was very surprised my friends in the Mission knew nothing about the arson claims being on the agenda last week. The SFFD is very bad at keeping the public informed about the specifics of what is on the commission agenda. In January, after many months of pushing, the fire commission moves its meetings to City Hall and will be aired on SFGovTV!!

    • PatrickMonkRn

      “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”??

  • richensf

    What I’ve been told by a fire inspector who trains our building to evacuate our office tower is that these fires are almost all electrical fires caused by people daisy chaining power strips to plug in all of their gadgets and appliances. Many older buildings only have one or two outlets per room and to accommodate their technological lifestyles, tenants are overloading old building circuits. The tipping point occurs every winter when they plug their space heaters in and send enough current to overload the power strips, which are often tucked behind flammable furniture. Fire victims who are honest about it will probably attest to having daisy chained a power strip with a space heater, but who wants to come out and be held responsible for displacing their neighbors?

    People and their limitless supply of Internet outrage would like to believe instead that there is a conspiracy involving the fire department and evil landowners because it’s a much better story, so here’s a better one: Steve Jobs invented the iPhone to gentrify the Mission by displacing your space heater to a second, third, or maybe fourth power strip that you tuck behind your dusty old cloth sofa knowing that one day a cold spell will hit and set ablaze the electrical disaster he orchestrated from beyond the grave to gentrify the city block by block so that his evil army of technology workers could come in and build fancy towers to sell to the Chinese and probably also ISIS…


Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city's fire department and the Bay Area's refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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