S.F. Fire Department Brass Say They Have No Evidence of Mission District ‘Gentri-Fires’

Firefighters responding to March 11, 2015 blaze that killed two members of a family living in a second-floor apartment at 24th Street and Treat Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District.

Firefighters responding to March 11, 2015 blaze that killed two members of a family living in a second-floor apartment at 24th Street and Treat Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District. (Lindsey Hoshaw/KQED)

Amid continuing community concern about major residential blazes in the Mission, San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim are charging that top-ranking members of the Fire Department are not being transparent enough about how the agency works to prevent and investigate fires.

A series of major blazes in the Mission District over the last 18 months has killed three people, displaced nearly 200 others and led to a push for tougher fire-safety regulations and enforcement.

The blazes have also led some to express concern that arsonists are at work as part of a campaign to raze older, rent-controlled apartment buildings and replace them with market-rate structures — a phenomenon some have called “gentri-fire.”

The Fire Department has offered assurances that its investigators have found no evidence of arson in the major Mission fires, which were ruled accidental.

But the most recent fire in the area, a five-alarm blaze that destroyed or heavily damaged several buildings at 29th and Mission streets, prompted Campos to write an op-ed piece titled “Why is the Mission Burning?” in the San Francisco Examiner this week.

During a committee hearing on Wednesday, he reiterated the article’s themes — that even reasonable people now believe that arson has played a part in recent fires.

“People in the Mission really feel under siege,” Campos said during the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing. “The question that keeps coming up, to be honest, is the issue of arson.”

Campos acknowledged he has no proof any of the blazes were deliberately set. But, he continued to float the idea that property owners might be burning their own buildings to kick out low-income tenants.

“Even people who are not paranoid, people who are not believers in conspiracy theories, have a problem believing that these fires are just coincidental,” Campos said.

He added that he feels that fire officials haven’t offered much information to verify their findings.

“We’re not just going to trust the Fire Department,” he said.

In response, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White was emphatic that her agency has found no evidence of arson in the Mission.

“It would be irresponsible and inflammatory of us … if we do not have scientific evidence … to say that it’s an incendiary fire,” Hayes-White said. “No one’s hiding anything.”

Hayes-White also touched on a theme that other department officials have stressed: that the city’s housing crisis has crammed more people into smaller residential spaces and that the Mission’s older housing stock was not built to handle the domestic electrical demands of the 21st century.

Because of that, the department says, it plans to focus inspections in the Mission and Chinatown neighborhoods in the future.

The meeting also included disputes between the supervisors and Hayes-White, Fire Marshal Dan De Cossio and Arson Capt. Attica Bowden over whether the department’s statistics showed an increase in fire activity in the Mission. The dispute also involved the department’s rules for releasing the results of fire investigations and how fast inspectors respond to complaints about code violations.

Bowden was unable to explain why the department doesn’t release all reports on fire investigations to the public and De Cossio said he would get back to the committee on data showing its rate for fixing serious violations.

The Fire Department’s investigations of two fatal apartment fires in the Mission last year found one building lacked smoke detectors and another had blocked fire exits.

  • sugarntasty

    Why are we playing this “charade” which, paid various sources of gentrification! Majority Mission and Castro whom, victims tenants whom, (rent controlled units) Ed Lee never. Investigation where lobby, fire inspection requirements, to prevent future fires. We know land and those guilty,time lobby for safety. Anticipated 30 new high rise developments around 20th Mission,going to worsen. D.A Gascon any comments?

Author

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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