A map showing lots of fires in the north Mission and Tenderloin.
Click to jump to the map and explore fires in your neighborhood. Map by Will Jarrett.

Throughout 2020, an average of 12 fires burned in the Mission every week.

In neighboring communities, things were not much better. There were roughly three fires every week in the Castro/Upper Market area, seven in SoMa and eight in the Tenderloin.

This was not a typical year. Between 2019 and 2020, many neighborhoods saw a dramatic rise in fires. They leaped up 43 percent in the Tenderloin, 50 percent in the Mission, 63 percent in the Castro/Upper Market area and over 70 percent in SoMa. Taken as a whole, fires in San Francisco increased by more than a quarter within a single year.

And in 2021, the situation does not seem to have improved. The city endured more fires in the first 10 months of this year than it did throughout the entirety of 2019, according to public San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) data.

Mission residents have long recognized that fires are a problem in their neighborhood, but the pandemic dramatically worsened the situation. With shelters shutting their doors to prevent the spread of Covid-19, many San Franciscans had nowhere to go but encampments. These are often extremely unsafe, and the combination of combustible materials and open flames can turn tents into tinderboxes.

In the Mission, fires jumped over 50%

in 2020. Garbage fires nearly doubled.

600

The number of fire incidents

specifically recorded as tent

or encampment fires more

than tripled in 2020.

500

Type of fire

400

Garbage

Recorded

fire

incidents

Encampment

Structure

300

Vehicle

Other

200

100

0

2015

2016

2018

2019

2021*

2017

2020

*up to Oct. 31st

Year

In the Mission, fires jumped

over 50% last year. Garbage

fires almost doubled.

Type of fire

Garbage

Encampment

Structure

Vehicle

Other

2015

2016

2017

The number of

fire incidents

specifically

recorded as tent

or encampment

fires more than

tripled in 2020.

2018

2019

2020

2021

(up to Oct. 31st)

0

200

400

600

Fire incidents

SFFD data shows that the rise in fires across San Francisco was mainly driven by so-called “garbage fires.” This is a broad label used by SFFD that includes lots of different scenarios, but in general it means the fires happened outdoors and involved trash.

Lt. Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the fire department, said that frontline firefighters attributed many of these fires to encampments. Although they are generally small, their impact should not be underestimated, he said: “Any fire is dangerous – especially in San Francisco, where we have such a condensed city.”

The department’s data does not record an increase in injuries or fatalities from fires in 2020, but there was major property damage. Records indicate an estimated $80 million in combined property and contents damage throughout the year.

Baxter said many of the recent fires were caused by people in and around tents using open flames to cook and keep warm. Drug paraphernalia found at the scene of some blazes suggests that some were started in the preparation of drugs, he added.

This year, SFFD has so far counted 245 instances of fires being started intentionally, and some believe the actual number to be higher. Christin Evans, a local business owner and volunteer for the Coalition on Homelessness, said that she had seen instances of suspected arson involving tents that were not recorded as intentional.

In July 2021, three tents near 750 Florida Street caught alight around 10:30 p.m. The occupants survived, although one sustained burns on his hands from putting out the fire. Evans said the tents’ residents insist they were not using an open flame at the time. They believe that a housed neighbor set their tents on fire after they refused to move.

The incident was reported by Evans and a report from fire investigators is pending. It has been recorded as an “Outside rubbish, trash or waste fire” in SFFD data.

“Arson is not necessarily common,” said Evans, “but this was not unique either.”

Most neighborhoods in San Francisco saw an increase

in fires. The rise in the Mission was bigger than most.

Pacific Heights

Financial District/South Beach

Chinatown

North Beach

Mission Bay

Nob Hill

Bernal Heights

Bayview Hunters Point

Western Addition

Outer Richmond

Sunset/Parkside

Potrero Hill

Tenderloin

Hayes Valley

Marina

Mission

Castro/Upper Market

South of Market

−40

−30

−20

−10

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

0

Change in fire incidents from 2019 to 2020 (%)

Most neighborhoods in San Francisco

saw an increase in fires. The rise in

the Mission was bigger than most.

Pacific Heights

Financial District/South Beach

Chinatown

North Beach

Mission Bay

Nob Hill

Bernal Heights

Bayview Hunters Point

Western Addition

Outer Richmond

Sunset/Parkside

Potrero Hill

Tenderloin

Hayes Valley

Marina

Mission

Castro/Upper Market

South of Market

−40

−20

20

40

60

0

Change in fire incidents from 2019 to 2020 (%)

Please note: neighborhoods with fewer than 50 fires in 2019 were excluded from this chart.

Kelley Cutler, an organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, said the rise in encampments – and fires – was due to a lack of resources being made available to homeless people.

“There was a big increase in the number of tents because there was nothing else available,” said Cutler. “There were no alternatives.”

When the pandemic began, the city’s communal shelters (which can accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people when full, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing) started operating at a significantly reduced capacity in an attempt to lower the transmission of Covid-19. They also saw frequent closures, as positive tests meant getting shut down. The 311 service to get on a shelter waitlist was halted and has not yet returned.

The city did provide some alternative options. Safe sleep sites, where homeless people could use tents and access basic amenities like showers and food, were set up in multiple locations. These sites even had fire extinguishers available in case of a blaze. But, all together, they could only accommodate a few hundred people.

Some 2,000 hotel rooms were also made available. But entry was typically limited to people over 60 years old or to those with underlying medical conditions.

Comparing the spots available in reduced-capacity shelters, safe sleeping sites and hotel rooms to the city’s 2019 count of more than 8,000 homeless residents suggests that thousands of unhoused residents had few options except tents.

San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operations Center’s latest estimate from Aug. 2021 counted over 500 tents and 1,000 vehicles being used by homeless people across the city.

In an effort to curtail tent fires, Baxter said that the Fire Department has gone “outside of its traditional scope” by distributing pamphlets and talking to unhoused people about the dangers of open flames. After a year of outreach efforts, he said that the number of fires seems to be neither rising nor falling, but has reached a new plateau.

Cutler said that the best way to decrease fires was to provide more housing. “It’s not about trust building,” she said. “That’s nonsense. If good resources are available, people jump at the opportunity.”

With $1 billion of Proposition C funding finally trickling down into homeless services – some of which has already been used to buy hotels as shelters – Cutler and Evans are cautiously optimistic that better days may be ahead. But they said not to expect immediate changes.

“This situation was made worse by Covid but it took 40 years to get to this point,” said Evans. “It’s not going to be solved overnight.”

This year, the city saw over 3,500 fires by the end of October

Includes fires from Jan. 1st 2021 to Oct. 31st 2021. You can see the fullscreen map here.

Methodology

The data for this story is from the SFFD’s public fire incident dataset. The analysis was completed with Python. You can access our notebook here.

Jesus Mora, a manager at SFFD who organizes the department’s data, said that the number of fires included in our analysis may actually be an underestimate. Not every call-out to a fire is recorded as a fire incident, he explained. Some may be written up as medical incidents and some minor incidents may not be written up at all.

The categorization of fires in our analysis differs slightly from the categorization used internally by SFFD. Many of the incidents listed as “garbage fires” in the public dataset are reclassified as “outdoor fires” or “encampment fires” in SFFD’s internal data.

Mora explained that there is a lot of gray area in what is called an outdoor, trash or encampment fire and sometimes changes are made based on the incident write-ups, which are not available in the public dataset.

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Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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2 Comments

  1. Tent dwellers fighting with each other is a more likely cause of encampment fires than the homed turning into arsonists. Oh, and passing out while smoking fent.

  2. The fires are small because it’s cold and people are trying to get heat .

    Time for the city to step up and provide affordable housing for unhoused individuals . These units need to provide HVAC systems. Both heating and air conditioning . We are the richest city in the richest nation. This is a disgrace . People living in 5000 sqft homes and some people unhoused. Stop the racism and racism build on the Hispanics backs .

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