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:

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for giving my video from Thursday’s fire commission meeting attention and using it for this excellent story. Frankly, I am _very_ over the commission being vague about the agendas for their meetings. There was _nothing_ on the agenda indicating the arson chief would be making a presentation about claims of arsons in the Mission, and that the commission would debate calendaring the arson matter at a future meeting. It is time for this commission to be fully transparent about their agenda before meetings happen!

  2. That they are determining the fires are electrical reinforces a theory I have been floating for about a year, i.e. That the amount of development and the increased power needed to support so much tech is outstripping the power infrastructure’s capacity, and thus causing outdated wiring in older building to cause fires. This is a more nuanced theory than “the landlord burned it down for cash.” But it connects the amount of development being approved, the power being drawn to support the building and tech-oriented higher density as causes of the fires. It would take professional experts, perhaps a university, some time and money to establish … a study would have to look at the capacity of the electrical infrastructure, the changes in the amount of power being drawn (the changing demand on the infrastructure), the condition of the wiring, and what happens to old wiring when the current passing through it fluctuates (it vibrates faster and heats up per the electrical union guys who were at last year’s Chavez breakfast). They thought it was a very possible hypothesis. But I still just “know” that is what is happening. Unusual, frequent and small fluctuations in current coming into our place on Balmy Alley caused by construction on 24th Street crashed my server because the fluctuations were so small they didn’t trigger the battery back up, but it did exhaust and blow up the hard drives. “Small power fluctuations” was determined to be the cause of the crash by an independent forensic tech expert my insurance company hired. So it is only a small leap to think the same sorts of fluctuations are heating up all the old wiring and causing fires. A house I lived in in Berkeley 30 years ago burned because of defective electrical conduit. The key question has to be: why are there so many more electrical fires? Isn’t that at least worth looking into?

    1. Newer or remodeled building are not as vulnerable as older structures with older wiring.
      The Mission District is especially vulnerable because it has so many older, wooden structures.
      A fire in one building often moves to the adjacent buildings with the result that many residents are displaced. The number of these fires annually has been relatively consistent. This problem precedes the “tech” invasion. Almost all of these older buildings in the Mission were built well before 1979, are subject to rent control and are ground zero for the housing wars.
      How do we bring the buildings up to current code? At what cost? Would (all, part or none of) the cost be passed on to the tenants?

  3. it has been looked into and it is “tech/development” related.
    In 2011, an estimated 47,700 home structure fires (16,400 non-home structure) reported to U.S. fire departments involved some type of electrical failure or malfunction as a contributing factor.
    1. Most electrical fires are caused by faulty electrical outlets and old, outdated appliances. Other fires are started by faults in appliance cords, receptacles and switches.
    2. Running cords under rugs is another cause of electrical fires. Removing the grounding plug from a cord so it can be used in a two-prong electrical outlet can also cause a fire. The reason appliances have the extra prong is so they can be only used in outlets that can handle the extra amount of electricity that these appliances draw.
    3. Misuse of extension cords is another electrical fire cause. Appliances should be plugged directly into outlet and not plugged into an extension cord for any length of time.
    4. Space heaters are a major cause of electrical fires.
    5. Outdated wiring often causes electrical fires. If a home is over twenty years old, it may not have the wiring capacity to handle the increased amounts of electrical appliances in today’s average home, such as computers, wide screen televisions, DVD players, microwaves and air conditioners. info from: U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association
    – with multiple people living in decades old s.f. dwellings, all with tech/entertainment/convenience appliances plugged into decades old wiring its a wonder there aren’t more fires, not less.

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