Despite concerns from Mission community members that recent fires have been caused by arson, fire department officials said that there is no evidence of wrongdoing in the neighborhood.
“We really have to let people know that as far as the fire department knows, there is not an active arsonist in the Mission and that the majority of these fires have been electrical and accidental in nature,” said Francee Covington, a fire commissioner, at Thursday’s Fire Commission meeting.
Convington said she had received numerous calls about suspicions of arson, and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she had spoken to Supervisor David Campos and a local radio station about the fires.
Community organizer Roberto Hernandez has written two emails to the commission requesting a community meeting to address the rash of recent fires in the Mission. Roughly 130 people have been displaced in 12 residential fires this year in the Mission District, according to Mission Local’s counting. The most recent was a two-alarm fire at Mission and Cesar Chavez streets that temporarily displaced 10 people, an estimated six of whom were able to return.
“Clearly you have failed to respond to our request just like you have failed to investigate the fires in the Mission,” Hernandez wrote to the commission. “In October this year you allowed for the removal of the head of its arson task force after he voiced repeated public complains that the unit was understaffed and overwhelmed by backlog of uncompleted investigations.”
Hayes-White said she had tried to respond to Hernandez but had been unable to reach him, and commissioners rejected the idea that the Mission fires had been caused by arson.
“If you look at the numbers, they’re relatively consistent,” De Cossio said. He said there had been 20 structure fires in the Mission this year, 15 last year, 18 in 2013, and 12 in 2012.
“It does fluctuate up and down but it’s relatively consistent,” he said.
De Cossio also said there are 325 active fire investigations citywide, a backlog that has been reduced from 407 in recent weeks. Fire commission minutes indicate that, at the beginning of November, 60 of 409 active investigations needed to be completed by arson investigators.
Andrea Evans, president of the Fire Commission, said more detailed data would be useful.
“Commercial versus residential is a distinction that the community is interested in knowing about,” she said. She also requested that older data be included, saying that changes in the neighborhood in recent years warrant a longer timeline.
“These fires are adding to the gentrification of Latinos in the Mission,” Hernandez wrote in his email. “By not investigating these fires it sends the wrong message to those evil greedy minds that see the benefit of burning down buildings for profits.”
Gentrification, said commissioner Ken Cleaveland, might be the reason why fears of arson have arisen. But he also rejected the idea that arsonists were the cause of Mission fires.
“I was gratified to hear that the statistics coming out are saying that there are no more fires in the Mission than any other part of the city,” Fire Commissioner Ken Cleveland said. “It’s just that they are just getting more press coverage because of, perhaps, the fears of gentrification.”
Cleaveland suggested that an incoming public information officer’s first job should be to release a list of the ten most common causes of fires in multiple languages to educate the public about the fire safety.
“These fires, by and large, they’re not arson. They’re accidents,” he said.
Much of the Commission’s discussion of Mission fires was captured in a video recorded by activist and blogger Michael Petrelis, which can be viewed below: