In the early hours of the morning on Sunday, July 11, a makeshift tent on the sidewalk caught fire, and the fire spread to the nearby building at the corner of 15th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, damaging the exterior of the corner apartment, according to the San Francisco Fire Department. 

The fire department was initially called at 3:37 a.m. By 3:57 the fire had been extinguished. Lt. Jonathan Baxter, the public information officer for the San Francisco Fire Department, said there were no injuries. The whereabouts of the tent dweller are unknown. 

Image of firefighters at corner of 15th and South Van Ness around 3:30 a.m. on Sunday. Courtesy of Christi Azevedo.

Martin Aguilar and Javier Zarut were smoking a blunt on Monday morning in a tent across the street from the fire scene. They said people living in tents come and go, but the “morena” — dark-skinned — woman who was between 40 and 50 years old had been living on the corner of 15th and South Van Ness for about a week. 

The burnt building on Monday morning. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.

Carlos Padilla, an 85-year-old from El Salvador who has lived at 15th and South Van Ness for 20 years, said in Spanish that he was sleeping when the fire happened, and woke up to the sounds of the firefighters, who broke through his door to get inside the apartment. 

Padilla held up the broken parts on the door, as he explained Monday morning that he is waiting for the firefighters to come fix his door and clean up the debris from when they broke into his apartment to check for fire. 

According to Padilla, the lower apartment next door which was impacted “was not occupied.” 

Carlos Padilla in his apartment on South Van Ness and 15th. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.

Baxter said the fire is categorized as “an accidental encampment fire,” which is not to be taken for arson. He noted that he is aware of some residents’ concerns in this corridor over fires starting near tents, and has spent time passing out flyers to homeless residents which warn them of the dangers of open flames. 

“We have taken it on as a Department to engage that population to ensure safety.” 

A copy of the postcard SF Fire Department has been handing out to people living on the streets of San Francisco. Courtesy of Jonathan Baxter, SF Fire Public Information Officer.

And Jason G., a resident who lives around the corner on Folsom between 15th and 16th, seemed to be one of these concerned residents. Biking by the burnt building on Monday morning, he stopped to inquire about what happened. 

Learning that a homeless encampment had sparked the fire, he was not surprised. According to him, on Tuesday, June 22, there was a fire at a homeless encampment on Folsom Street. The fire department confirmed the fire occurred. 

An image of another encampment fire at 1960 Folsom St., which occurred on June 22. Photo by Jason G.

And another encampment fire occurred on the 1900 block of Folsom Street the afternoon of April 15. In this case, a tent in which meth was being cooked caught fire, and three cars were damaged. The Fire Department said this fire was not arson. In both instances, no one was injured.

An image of encampment fire from April 15. Courtesy of Jason G.

Jenn Bowman, who lives in a nearby building, said the encampment was leaned up against the building using blankets and boxes. During Sunday’s blaze, Bowman said the flames were almost two stories high, and that she and her partner saw five children in the unit above the fire looking out the window. “My biggest concern was the children and low-income families in the building,” she said. 

“I just feel like it can’t go on with these fires happening.” she said. 

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Clara-Sophia Daly is a multimedia storyteller and reporter who has worked both in print and audio. A graduate of Skidmore College where she studied International Affairs and Media/Film studies, she enjoys working at the intersection of art and politics, and focusing on the stories of individuals to reveal larger themes.

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9 Comments

  1. let’s not forget the 5 alarm fire a year ago at 14th and shotwell that destroyed two commercial buildings with an ignited mattress. i think mr. padilla’s right to live outweighs people’s right to camp.

  2. Another reality check for those who defend encampments. This has occurred multiple times in the last few months between SF and Oakland. Too often these individuals refuse offers for shelter but at the expense of our community. To be clear most are too ill and lack insight to make these decisions. Conservatorship now for these individuals. We are doing them no benefit to deteriorate in the streets.

    Is the city going to pay for the buildings damage? Predictably there will be silence or excuses from Ronen’s office. At best lots of emotion and empty rhetoric with no solutions. Was expecting her to speak out against the punks who graffitied the new Avanza building, then nothing. The Mission deserves better.

  3. Vlad, I’m all for it. Please explain the details of your conservatorship solution? Where do we put 5,000-8,000 people in SF alone, what agency does it, for how long, then what, at what cost, etc.?

    1. Sam,

      We throw over 300 million a year on homelessness to nonprofits with zeero accountability. The questions you ask are exactly what we pay our government officials to answer not just at the city but also state level. The current “plan” isn’t working. If you propose to accept the current state, then let’s please stop handing out all this Narcan as it’s inevitable what will happen to these people.

  4. Thank you for this story. I just shared it with Mayor Breed and Supervisor Mandelman as I’ve been reporting for more than two weeks a similar encampment on 15th Street at Dolores – which is located 6 feet from the entrance to an apartment building and 40 feet from the entrance to the Mission Dolores Senior Housing at 1855 15th. Another encampment at the corner of 16th and Dolores has been there for 5 weeks now- and is 50 feet from the entrance to TWO pre-schools. The City is FAILING Mission District residents by not protecting our most vulnerable populations from these dangerous encampments.

    1. I would also like to thank Ms. Daly and Mission Local for reporting on this story. I absolutely agree that this fire is another example of how it is often the most vulnerable people, those who who might have to leave the city forever, who are often in danger of being displaced because of these fires. However, Mayor Breed has shown a deplorable lack of leadership in getting people housed so that these fires don’t start in the first place. It was shocking to see our mayor ignore emergency legislation to get unhoused people off the street. (https://missionlocal.org/2020/04/mayor-london-breed-blew-off-unanimous-legislation-to-put-homeless-in-hotels-yes-she-can-do-that/) The city is indeed failing many Mission District residents who have everything to lose. The fact that there are still encampments everywhere as the rich have become immensely richer over the past year is sad beyond words.

      1. How many people can we house? Is there no limit? From KQED ” Over the last 15 years, the city estimates that it has housed more than 26,000 homeless people. But that’s come at tremendous cost: The city spent more than $300 million on homeless prevention services in 2018, and yet the day-to-day population didn’t dip. It actually grew, to more than 8,000, according to city’s latest point-in-time count”. The “housing is a human right” myth is an unsustainable pipe dream ! How is having 26,000 people with behavioral problems concentrated in SF going to make for a safe livable city ? Progressive politics is being shown to…. HAVE NO CLOTHES

  5. This has to stop. Stop allowing the tents to be on the sidewalks and up against the buildings.

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