Photo by Lola M. Chavez

San Francisco fire investigators have concluded that the five-alarm fire that swept through seven buildings at the corner of 29th and Mission streets and displaced dozens of residents and businesses was most likely an accident caused by cigarettes or smoldering coals.

The fire investigation report states that the fire likely started in two trash cans near the back of the roof of the Cole Hardware building at 3316 Mission St. There was no indication the fire started in the hardware store.

“Discarded smoking materials” were found near both trash cans, investigators wrote, indicating the area “was used for smoking.” Additionally, a resident of an apartment nearby said she often saw a man smoking near the trash cans, according to the fire report.

The June 18 blaze, one of the worst in recent Mission District history, caused some $14 million worth of damages and displaced at least 41 residential tenants and six businesses, according to the Fire Department.

Two unidentified employees of Cole Hardware told investigators that during the fire, they went to the roof to try to identify the source and saw flames coming from the area near the trash cans. One said that “the whole trash can was on fire” as well as the wall behind it, the report noted.

The investigation stated that one trash can had “melted down into the roofing material” and that another had “signs of severe heat and fire damage.”

A barbecue was also on the roof, and investigators wrote they were “were unable to eliminate” smoldering charcoal dumped in the trash cans as the source of the fire. Investigators did not say the cigarette butts or coals ignited the fire, only that they could not rule them out.

There was no evidence the fire was arson, investigators wrote.

“During the course of this investigation, no evidence or information was discovered that would support a deliberate act which would have caused this fire,” the report reads.

Rick Karp, the owner of Cole Hardware, which was adjacent to the source of the fire, said he had “been saying from day one it’s got to be a joint or a cigarette.” Tenants of the Graywood Hotel, the single-room occupancy hotel on the corner, used the roof to socialize and he feared the fire started from a misplaced cigarette, he said.

Many of the tenants were low-income renters from the Graywood Hotel. Some of those ended up living in tents on the streets following the fire and slow action by the city, but eventually found housing.

The businesses were largely long-time establishments like the Cole Hardware, Playa Azul, El Paisa, El Gran Taco Loco, and the 3300 Club. Many of them received federal loans and city aid, but will likely be displaced for months before they can rebuild.

Karp said it was unclear whether Cole Hardware would be able to return to their Mission Street location, since the building was sold after the fire. If the new landlord were amenable, the store “would definitely move back into the space,” he said.

Fear of Arson

Arson fears are rampant in the gentrifying Mission District, where activists fear that landlords are torching their own buildings to displace rent-controlled tenants.

Ten days after the fire at 29th and Mission streets, Supervisor David Campos wrote an op-ed in the Examiner saying that “reasonable people” believe arson is behind fires in the neighborhood and calling for more investigations by the Fire Department.

“I think [fires] happening in the context of increased housing cost and rent cost — people are wondering ‘Is there a connection?’” he said in an interview Wednesday, adding that the “number of fires” in the neighborhood was concerning.

Campos said he took the Fire Department at its word about the 29th and Mission fire, and urged officials to be as transparent about all Mission District fires in the future.

The fire was the first five-alarm in San Francisco since September 2014, when another five-alarm fire destroyed a discount store on Mission Street but did not displace any residential tenants.

A massive four-alarm fire destroyed an old apartment building filled with rent-controlled tenants at 22nd and Mission streets in January 2015. A man died in the blaze, which was likely caused by an electrical short, and more than a dozen businesses were displaced. That building burned two more times after the initial fire, likely due to squatters.

The other deadly blaze in recent history was a two-alarm fire in March 2015 that killed a father and his 13-year-old daughter when it struck their flat at the corner of 24th Street and Treat Avenue.

Several other fires have displaced dozens of residents in the neighborhood, like the three-alarm fire that consumed the Rolling Stock tire shop at 16th and Shotwell streets, shutting the shop down and displacing at least 23 people from nearby buildings.

Fire officials have said there is no evidence of arson behind Mission District fires, and fended off concerns from residents in June following the 29th and Mission fire.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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