Markael Raybon was sleeping in his tent on Shotwell street near 16th the night of May 5 when he started to smell smoke. He didn’t think too much of it, until he started to feel some heat.
“Next thing I heard was pew, pew, pew! It was crazy,” he said, recounting the sound of a propane tank exploding. It was the 22nd fire, of all types, on Shotwell between 14th and 17th streets this year.
Mission Local, in November, reported a surge in fires in the neighborhood, driven by uncontrolled barbecues, warming appliances and propane tanks. And still they continue, according to statistics compiled by the Fire Department and anecdotes from nearby residents.
“There’s a certain point where you don’t know what to do,” said Lily Rahnabart, who lives around the corner from the site of a June 1 fire at South Van Ness Avenue and 15th streets, and has been in the neighborhood for 14 years.
In 2020, fires in the Mission jumped by 50 percent. And, although fires decreased slightly in 2021, there have been more this year than there were in the same period last year, a jump from 226 outdoor fires between January and May, 2021, to 297 between January and May, 2022. That’s the highest recorded mid-year outdoor fire totals in the Mission, ever.
The Mission is on track to record more
outside fires in 2022 than in any prior year.
The Mission is on track
to record more outside fires
in 2022 than in any prior year.
Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the San Francisco Fire Department. Excludes building and chimney fires.
While neighbors have been advocating for a solution from the Fire Department since 2016, they’ve asked for help from Supervisor Hillary Ronen since she took office in 2017, they said.
Like her neighbors, Rahnabart said the fires mainly come from encampments.
For its part, the Fire Department says it works with the San Francisco Police Department, San Francisco Public Works and the Homeless Outreach Team to reduce encampment fires. Multiple organizations, including Healthy Streets, the department said, post and hand out fliers with safety tips: Never cook in a tent, and never use appliances to heat a tent or sleeping area.
Santiago Lerma, Ronen’s legislative aide, told Mission Local that “the paper trail is a mile long” when it comes to working with other departments. According to Lerma, the office has tried to ban the possession of flammable materials on the street, but has been told “it’s not possible.”
Finding the exact cause or culprit of encampment fires is difficult without witnesses or video evidence. However, given what is available, the Fire Department attributes the fires to accidents that happen with open-flame cooking or someone forgetting to put out a cigarette.
Residents agree, but said they want more than just fliers and signs.
“People who own homes are concerned; [Ronen] needs to be stepping up,” said Steven James, who lives on 15th Street.
He pointed to the black residue on 15th Street near Shotwell that had merged with the sidewalk. It was the aftermath, he said, of what was the third fire in his neighborhood during the first week of June. The cause, he said, was clear; something at an encampment caught fire, and the blaze eventually spread to a car in the adjacent parking lot. The charred remains of the encampment and car were swiftly removed by the fire department.
“I left in the morning, and when I came back, it was gone,” James said.
James has lived in San Francisco for 25 years and moved to the Mission in January. He has received a warm welcome, of sorts. But the fires here predate him: One occurred across the street from his home last year that burned the exterior of two apartment units. The buildings have not yet been repaired.
Mission Local reported on a fire last year at 66 Shotwell St. The other week, a second fire sparked at the same location. Neighbors said it came from a nearby encampment.
The third recent fire erupted at 1417 15th St., near Folsom street, on the sidewalk. Keith Adams, who owns the building, shared video of the blaze. It depicts a person leaving from Keith’s front door, strolling with a shopping cart when suddenly sparks start to fly out in the background, right beneath the second story windows.
He woke up to a phone call at 8 in the morning from his neighbor down the street.
“He was like, ‘It seems like your place had a really bad fire or something. You guys should come.’” Adams said.
Adams had bought the art and gallery space in August. He called 311, the police, and the fire department to report the scorched window panes, concrete wall and sidewalk. While the ashy debris was cleared by the Department of Public Works in 36 hours, Adams has to replace a whole window fixture.
“There was a little bit of helplessness around, just like, ‘What was I supposed to do here exactly?’” Adams said.
The Fire Department is still investigating the cause. Out of 140 investigations conducted by the department this year, only a little over half have been completed.
“It’s fallen on the shoulders of residents,” said Aleah Vollono, 27, a bartender and four-year resident of the Mission, who also says the city should be held responsible for controlling the fires. “Had this happened anywhere else, there would be an uproar. This part of the city is overlooked.”
The Fire Department suggests that residents call 311 to report garbage against buildings and 911 if they see any open flames. The department also said it helps if neighbors share any video with the police.
Adams, along with his neighbors, want the city to acknowledge the problem and to do something to prevent more fires from happening.
“I understand why it’s happening. It just sort of seems a shame that we can’t do anything about it.”
Raybon, the homeless man awakened by smoke and heat last month, agrees. While shaking his head, he opens a can of Pringles as he continues arranging his tent.
“In this area full of adults, there shouldn’t be a lot of fires,” he says. “It’s just not right.”