Neighbors who have been keeping a close eye on fires in San Francisco’s Mission District confronted a stoic Fire Commission in an emotional meeting Wednesday night berating the Fire Department’s oversight body for failing to enforce known code violations in buildings that suffered fires.
After Captain Lourdes Russell reminded the more than 100 residents attending the meeting to obtain and maintain smoke detectors in every bedroom and to take care not to overload their electrical circuits, tenants objected.
Landlords, not tenants, needed to be held accountable for allowing fire risks to persist, they said.
“We want to make sure that we’re not placing blame on tenants,” said Leticia Arce, who works with the tenants rights group Causa Justa.
Gloria Esteva, also with Causa Justa, added, “How dare you come and tell us that if we had working alarms that that would have saved us, when the responsibility is clearly the landlords’, who benefit from our [rent],” she said. “If you do not enact laws that punish these people, there will be more deaths. That’s going to be on you.”
After repeated requests from neighborhood activists and local supervisor David Campos, the Commission agreed to hold its April 27 hearing in the Mission and to address concerns about fires. Neighbors spoke of fear and frustration around fires and demanded that the commission and department improve fire prevention.
“It’s been a challenge for me, dealing with the Fire Commission,” Campos told the Commission. Though he lauded the work of rank and file firefighters actually battling the flames, he said, “I am concerned about the fire department’s response to these fires…I know you volunteer your time, but I have to say that there is a very real disconnect between where this commission is and where members of the community are.”
Gabriel Medina of the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) said some 9,000 people had been affected by fires in the neighborhood.
“We are experiencing displacement by fire,” he said.
“Every time we hear fire trucks, everyone is in a panic, because you don’t know if this is your building or not,” said Dairo Romero, a resident at 26th and Mission streets.
Fire Marshal Dan DeCossio showed data showing that calls for service throughout San Francisco have been increasing steadily since 2005 – a fact he attributed to a growing population and growing density. Among the city’s 11 districts, District 6 and 10 stood out as consistently having the most structure fires since 2004.
However, residents and Supervisor alike seized on DeCossio’s chart showing that the Mission once had some 3.3 percent of the city’s greater alarm fires in 2004, but in 2015 accounted for 9.4 percent of citywide fires, a fact examined earlier by San Francisco Weekly.
“What is happening during that period of time that the percentage tripled?” Campos asked after the fire marshal’s presentation.
DeCossio noted that some 30 percent of structure fires in the Mission in 2015 were due to some kind of electrical fault – the national average is 8 percent. That ranks electrical fires as the fourth most common cause of fires nationwide, but the most common cause in the Mission.
Arson Task Force Captain Attica Bowden revealed the likely causes of several recent fires in the neighborhood. The notorious Mission and 22nd Street fire was initially caused by an electrical fault. The two subsequent fires were possibly caused by trespassers using a heat source, he said. At the Rolling Stock tire shop on 16th and Shotwell, the fire may have either been electrical or improperly disposed smoking materials. A small fire that broke out on February 26th in the destroyed residential building next door on 16th Street may have been caused by squatters as well.
Bowden even named likely causes for very recent fires – A residential fire on 17th and Guerrero streets last week was likely due to smoking materials, and a fire on San Jose Avenue probably started in a dryer.
Several individuals under the banner of a group called United to Save the Mission maneuvered around the three-minute time limit in public comment by taking turns to present portions of a slideshow with fire data visualizations in sequence.
Spike Kahn, founder of the Pacific Felt Factory and a temporary landlord to several families displaced by fires under the city’s Good Samaritan law, pointed to repeated records of violations the Mission and 22nd street building. These included non-functioning extinguishers and blocked escape routes – problems that hampered victims’ ability to escape when the building first went up in flames in January 2015.
Kahn then cited records indicating that a building on 17th and Guerrero streets that suffered a fire last week had not had a fire inspection recorded since 2007.
“Shame on you. Shame on everyone who is here to allow that to happen,” Kahn said.
Joshua Arce, a candidate for District 9 supervisor, told the commission he and others are looking for ways to transfer ownership of the Mission and 22nd street building to a nonprofit owner for reconstruction.
“We’ve even talked about eminent domain. An affordable housing nonprofit, that’s the way this has to happen,” Arce said.
Tenant advocates Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Coalition and Diana Flores of Causa Justa presented a list of recommendations to the commission. These included that the Fire Department track, make publicly available, and impose penalties for fire code violations.
They also requested that the current distinction between “priority complaints” and “standard complaints” be eliminated to give equal weight to all fire safety complaints.
“It’s a shame, all the hurdles that it took for us to get this meeting,” Flores concluded.
Though tensions occasionally boiled over into shouting, calls for collaboration with residents dominated, with one even coming from within the department.
“The overall defensive tone is causing us to lose an opportunity for partnership,” said Adam Wood, a firefighter at local Station 7 on 19th and Folsom streets. “The message should not be that their concerns are exaggerated.”
Steve Engler, an inspector with the fire department, repeated the plea for residents to maintain their fire alarms.
“I have never been to a [fire with a] fatality that had an active and working smoke detector,” he said. “The [power] draws on these older buildings are enormous. Unsecured power strips are inadequate.”
For their part, the commissioners kept a courteous, if guarded, stance.
“All of us take our jobs very seriously,” said Commissioner Ken Cleaveland. “We oversee a department that has had its budget cut year after year…All of us can feel there needs to be better enforcement. It’s all a matter of resources.”
Campos wasn’t buying it.
“We have given a lot of resources to the Fire Department over the years,” he said after the meeting. “In our toughest budget years we made a point of not sacrificing the Fire Department. It’s about what priorities they have, and the overall performance of this agency.”
Several commissioners said the logistical difficulty of arranging for a meeting that could accommodate the necessary crowd and be recorded by SFGOVTV had caused the delay in holding a meeting in the neighborhood.
Commission President Francee Covington said she would see about creating an internal task force within the department to evaluate how feasible the community recommendations were. She promised to hold future meetings in the neighborhood, including a less formal discussion with more dialogue.
“I want you to know that I have heard you, we have heard you,” Covington said. “This is not the last you will see of us.”