Dana Marek was visibly upset. Pointing to the electrical pole 10 feet from her front door on Shotwell Street, where city employees tried to lacquer over the charred wood, she recounts how a propane fire started here in 2018. It consumed a car and neared the electrical transformer before it was extinguished by the San Francisco Fire Department. No one was hurt, but two of her tenants left the next week, she said.
Nowadays, her neighborhood sees “a fire a week,” Marek said. A recent one erupted on Sept. 30 across the street from Marek’s home, against FoodsCo’s west wall, between 14th and 15th streets. Marek and her neighbors had just paid an artist to repaint a mural there to discourage tagging and encampments. Marek noted the particular bell shape of the fire scars, indicating a propane tank. “You can see them around the neighborhood.” Many, as it turns out.
Fire incident data confirms residents’ sense that fires are increasing. The number of fires rose sharply last year and have remained high. Lt. Jonathan Baxter, the SFFD public information officer, said the city saw a 60 percent increase in outdoor fires in 2020.
“Our members in the field have found many of these fires to be attributed to encampments throughout the City,” wrote Baxter in an email.
Propane tanks are only one method. The FoodsCo wall fire involved three shopping carts, according to a Fire Department report. The shopping carts, a firefighter at the scene told a resident, had likely been turned upside down to use as barbecues. Three other tent or encampment-related fires were extinguished by the Fire Department in September (approximately one a week), including an “unoccupied tent fire” near Marshall Elementary School.
As recently as last Saturday, Nov. 6, an RV burned under Highway 101 at 15th and San Bruno streets, a fire Baxter said the department classified as an “accidental … encampment fire caused by either open flame from poor heating or open flame from poor cooking issues.” The Fire Department extinguished a trash fire on 16th Street on Oct. 26.
Between April and July, Mission Local also reported on tent and encampment fires in the vicinity. The fires damaged a South Van Ness Avenue building unit, two Florida Street storage units, a Pacific Gas & Electric pole, and three cars on Folsom Street. The latter was a result of meth being cooked in a tent.
It’s all a little too close for comfort, residents said. Many residents that Mission Local spoke with recounted the 2020 “five alarm fire” at 14th and Shotwell streets, which damaged or destroyed at least six buildings. Numerous residents and businesses were displaced, and Fire Department records indicate a mattress ignited by an open flame or smoking materials as a cause of the blaze.
Click on an orange dot above for more information about fires in and around South Van Ness Avenue-Shotwell-Folsom Streets historic district since April 2021. The 2020 “five alarm” fire took place on 14th Street near Shotwell Street. Interactive map created by Will Jarrett.
Mission Local’s analysis of the public fire department data differs slightly from the department’s internal data because of how the fires are classified; it is often difficult to say if a fire is a trash fire, an “outdoor” fire, or an encampment fire, for example.
However the data is sliced, the Mission saw a major increase. Public fire incident data shows a 50 percent rise in recorded fire incidents in 2020. Almost two-thirds of the neighborhood’s 625 fire incidents were reported as trash fires; 40 of those were specifically coded as encampment fires.
Francisco Herrera, who works with Dolores Street Community Services, said that by failing to prioritize people on the streets, the city has created a perilous situation in which “lives are at stake.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness executive director, also emphasized the vulnerability of unhoused people. They are sometimes targets of “acts of hate,” like the killing of Luis Temaj, whose sleeping bag was set on fire on Oct. 8 while he slept outside near the intersection of 25th Street and South Van Ness Avenue. He died in the hospital the next day.
She was also concerned that homelessness and crime were being conflated. Crimes are committed by people “regardless of housing status,” she said.
Fires are the most visible manifestation of problems that residents said are increasing in and around the South Van Ness Avenue-Shotwell-Folsom Streets historic district, the “isolated pocket of development” sandwiched between 14th and 15th streets unharmed by the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Today, the neighborhood is a mix of business and residential properties. It also hosts a number of tent encampments which some residents think contributes to the nexus of crime, fire risk, and reducing property values.
Emails between residents and the offices of Hillary Ronen and David Campos — current and former District 9 supervisors, respectively — show residents have been reporting their concerns and demanding action as early as 2016.
Before the pandemic, they organized neighborhood meetings with city officials and local businesses, but ultimately most feel nothing has been done. Herrera said unhoused residents have created survival strategies and, to make the city safe for everyone, the city should work more closely with neighborhood groups and nonprofits.
For now, however, the city’s most visible solution is to clear encampments. “It seems like the city will come through and sweep an area based on, you know, who is squawking the loudest,” said John Gumas, who started Gumas Advertising 25 years ago out of 99 Shotwell St. “It’d be nice for a few weeks, and then it will come right back.”
He has moved his business out of the area. “I just couldn’t put my employees through that anymore,” he said, referring to recurring vehicle break-ins. When he moved, he had to reduce his building’s rent by about half to get another tenant. “My worst nightmare was a fire, because that’s a wood building,” he said.
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she shared her constituents’ “frustration at the lack of action.”
“I agree with my constituents that are concerned about fires,” Ronen said. “It is a real concern. It’s not people being anti-homeless or entitled or alarmist.”
The officials responsible for articulating a strategy, Ronen said, including the Department of Homelessness and Housing director Shireen McSpadden and Dept. of Emergency Management executive director Mary Ellen Carol, have yet to do so, despite her prodding since July.
When Ronen finally called a meeting with the directors on Oct. 20, she was promised a strategy that night. She has yet to see one. Earlier, she received an email with a list of phone numbers and services constituents could call if they saw people on the street. It was “a slap in the face. Every one of my constituents have called these numbers one hundred times,” Ronen said.
“We need to have a multifaceted strategy that deals with immediate crisis on the street and deals with the long term permanent housing,” Ronen said.” We’re not striking the right balance right now.”
But residents seem unconvinced the current approach will change, and they’re worried that the fires will only get worse as the winter brings additional impetus to find ways to keep warm on the street. Based on incidents reported so far, 2021 is on track to match last year’s fire trends.
“It just seems like an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars to do what they’re doing … just kind of insane,” said Gumas, applying the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result to describe the city’s response.
“I’m born and raised in the city, I love the city,” he said, “but it’s getting really hard to love this city right now.”