In an effort to address widespread rumors of arson in the the Mission District, supervisors probed city officials Wednesday about the causes of fires that have displaced some 194 people and claimed the lives of three more in recent years.
For their part, the displaced residents wanted to know about their housing options.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos called a hearing at the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Supervisors to examine the effectiveness of new Fire Department and Department of Building Inspection code enforcement procedures. The latter are meant to help identify and encourage landlords to correct health and safety issues in buildings.
As the result of new legislation a tenant’s complaint about a non functioning fire alarm system must be investigated by both a fire inspector and a building inspector.
“That’s one of the benefits we’re going to get at 29th Street,” said the fire department’s Public Information Officer Jonathan Baxter, referring to joint inspections of the sprinkler and other systems at the damaged Graywood Hotel. Already the two agencies have sent inspectors to the damaged buildings. Those inspections showed that the sprinkler system had functioned as intended during the fire.
It became clear at Wednesday’s hearing that Campos remains unhappy with the city’s explanation of what is going on in the Mission District and what he said is its failure to explain why the rate of fires in the Mission District has remained steady while it has decreased citywide.
Campos raised concerns about data that showed that in 2015, fires in the Mission made up 9.4 percent of fires citywide, while in 2005 Mission fires constituted only 3.3 percent of the city’s fires.
“People in the Mission really feel under siege,” Campos said. “Even people who are not paranoid or conspiracy theorists have problem believing that these fires are coincidental.”
For the “last two years,” he added “I’ve asked repeatedly for information around these issues.”
But Fire Marshal Daniel De Cossio clarified that this percentage is misleading, explaining that the number of fires in the Mission remained relatively the same while fires in other neighborhoods decreased.
De Cossio said that a number of factors play a role in the string of “greater alarms fires” in the Mission, including the neighborhoods’ high density, wood-frame buildings, and older housing stock built to less stringent codes as possible factors in recent structure fires.
Campos also interrogated San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes White and Arson Task Force Captain Attica Bowden about uncompleted fire investigation reports. Though the department has reduced its backlog from more than 300 cases to 135, and only two of those active cases remain in the Mission, Bowden reported that the oldest incomplete report involves a fire from June 7, 2014.
“Two years seems like a very long time,” Campos said. “What is the industry standard?”
“It’s not about time frame but about efficient completion,” Bowden responded.
Supervisor Jane Kim then quizzed Bowden on the availability of completed fire investigation reports to the public, citing concerns over transparency. Bowden said investigations into fires in which arson is suspected are generally not released to the public to avoid tipping off potential suspects.
Investigation reports that cannot determine the cause of a fire are released on a case-by-case basis, and investigations for accidentally caused fires generally are released to the public upon request with redactions for victim and witness privacy.
An investigation report for the January 2015 fire at Mission and 22nd streets, for example, indicated the fire was likely caused by an electrical short inside a wall.
Kim remained skeptical.
“I’m not sure that there is any evidence that releasing this information encourages future arsonists,” said Kim. “There is no strong rationale for the fire department to withhold this information.”
But for tenants, the top priorities were finding their way back into permanent housing after a fire, and preventing fires from happening in the first place.
Lucas Solorzano, a housing rights counselor for Causa Justa, said that his organization has supported more than 200 individuals from 11 fire sites in jumping through the bureaucratic hurdles to relocate after fires. He urged the supervisors and the various departments to focus on supporting preventative measures.
“What we can say is that neglect is very commonplace,” said Solorzano in regards to the frequency of fires in the Mission. He urged all departments to offer “consistent and effective follow-up to abate issues that lead to life threatening hazards,” like fires.
Housing rights organizer Tommi Avicolli Mecca echoed the supervisors’ requests for more transparency from the fire department.
“Is there going to be data on the SFFD website that will allow us to access [information] about violations?”, he asked. He added that sharing with the public what the department determined as causes of the fires is crucial.
“It’s not an accident if there are years of violations,” he said.
Though code violations abound in the neighborhood, Senior Housing Inspector James Sanbonmatsu of the Department of Building Inspections presented a report to the committee showing that of 1,564 code violations cited in the Mission in 2015, 1,300 were corrected – some 82 percent.
Cristel Gutierrez, like the other 57 residents displaced by the 29th and Mission fire on June 18, is in need of temporary housing after the fire claimed her home and most of her property. She and the other displaced tenants are currently attempting to navigate the city’s resources.
While the cause of that fire remains unclear, fire officials believe that the fire-alarm blaze originated at a hardware store and then quickly spread to neighboring buildings, including the Graywood Hotel were Gutierrez lived.
“We’ve been out of our home for almost two weeks,” said Gutierrez. “The city of San Francisco has to do all in its power to prevent extensive damage due to fire by making sure there is a system in place to examine, document and resolve all code violations dealing with [safety].”
Building Inspection Chief Building Inspector Dan Lowery reported that repairs were already underway at the Graywood Hotel, where Gutierrez lived, and that they are expected to take around nine months.
“I am a person victimized by fire in 2015,” said Juan Torres, a former Mission resident, during public comment. “It’s been a year-and-a-half since I’ve had my own house.”
Torres also addressed the need to secure buildings from trespassers after a fire. Looters, he said, entered the damaged building and stole the displaced tenants’ property. Two fires that occurred inside an already fire-ravaged building on Mission and 22nd streets were attributed to squatters entering the dangerous structure, which should have been secured.
“Which city department will be able to assist us in…how we get back what was lost in the fire and what was last after?” Torres wanted to know.