A scorched wall and sidewalk from the fire on 1417 15th Street.
1417 15th Street. Photo by William Jenkins

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.

Firemen extinguish a fire on the side of Foods Co’s west wall (66 Shotwell Street) on Sep. 30, 2021. A firefighter said that three shopping carts had been turned upside down and used as barbecues. Photo courtesy of Christi Azevedo.

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.

Outside fires

600

2020

2021

500

400

300

2022

2003–2019

200

100

0

Jan

Feb

Mar

Apr

May

Jul

Aug

Sep

Nov

Dec

Jun

Oct

The Mission is on track

to record more outside fires

in 2022 than in any prior year.

Outside fires

600

2020

500

2021

400

2022

300

2003–2019

200

100

0

Jan

Mar

May

Jul

Sep

Nov

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. 

There was a little bit of helplessness around just like, ‘What was I supposed to do here exactly?’.

keith adams

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.

1417 15th Street. Photo by William Jenkins

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.”

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Intern Reporter. William moved to the Bay Area from Nashville to pursue a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley. He's covered police reform in Oakland and also investigates correctional officer misconduct at the Investigative Reporting Program. You'll mostly see him behind a camera. Follow him on Twitter @WilliamJenk_

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  1. “Ronen talked a big game at her Town Hall a few weeks ago, but nothing will actually change, as usual.”

    And that ‘as usual’ is true in every way of San Francisco.

  2. Ronen talked a big game at her Town Hall a few weeks ago, but nothing will actually change, as usual.

  3. We need a buffer zone around buildings where camping is not allowed and is enforced.

    The only times I’ve call the cops on otherwise inoffensive homeless people has been in the past year after these fires when tents abut buildings.

    The interests of housed residents in not getting burned out and the public interest in keeping housing from being destroyed is more compelling than the interests of unhoused residents being able to camp wherever they want.

  4. Lots of tiptoeing around the right answer: How about, no sidewalk camping, Captain Obvious. Can. Not. Have. It.
    So let’s see how ““A Place For All” is playing out. Hold your elected officials accountable relative to the implementation of this ordinance and vote accordingly.

  5. Don’t worry; I hear that building lots of $3,000 studios will help bring down prices enough so that everyone will have homes.

    1. For those who want a home and have the interest and ability to keep it, yeah, sarcasm aside: That’s how it’ll work out for many of the above. Price discovery, as they call it in the real estate business (or racket, if you prefer), will see to it. OTOH: As far as the folks that you see in stages of destitute are concerned. Draped across the sidewalk passed out or hunched over on the street corner, pants down screaming at the top of their lungs – it doesn’t really matter where the rents are at.

  6. I am sure the new DA will solve this problem, just like the recallers said. DA just needs to punish the homeless folks more. Thank goodness, help is on the way.

  7. The city does nothing, nothing, and more nothing. Our elected official treat their constituents with utter contempt. Ronen and her pals know exactly what’s going on in the Mission, from the crack, encampments, chop shops to the open-air markets that sell stolen goods. I’ve spoken with her and written letters, only to get a lot of agreement and hand wringing.

    The city has created and enabled these street conditions. It should be held liable when one of these homeless people burn down someone’s house.

    It is time for a significant change in city government. We need supervisors who give a damn about the quality of life here, which directly affects our economy.

    1. But Ronen made sure to stop the scourge of “brew pubs” and we all know those are worse than hundreds of random fires and open air drug markets that kill hundreds of people with fentanyl. Ronen is a perfect example of the great leader ship we can expect from virtue signaling leftists.

  8. The article makes it sound like the encampment residents are just innocently cooking food or trying to stay warm. I’ve had to call the police/fire departments multiple times and it’s always because they’re either smoking crack under a tarp or purposely setting fire to small piles of stuff like paper for fun. They don’t care if they set a building on fire because they’ll just move on to the next corner.

    1. so true. homeless have absolutely nothing to lose. what good is a flyer from the FD to someone who is mentally ill or out of their mind on drugs? and the wasted time on reports? who cares about whether it was a crack pipe or a jury rigged heating pad when a car is totaled or a house burnt down? all the $$$$ wasted on having 5 fire trucks, several police, and the arson unit come out for an obvious and preventable tent fire should be spent on getting people off the street. it’s ridiculous. this is only happening in the mission, soma, and tenderloin where the city has shuttled drug sales and encampments.

  9. This is a consequence of “not criminalizing homelessness.”

    As long as there is no way to force homeless people to move, these fires will keep happening.

    It’s worth remembering that San Francisco voters approved the Sit/Lie law in 2011. So we tried.

  10. 311 doesn’t get rid of encampments unless there is some sort of threat.

    When you fear for your safety, avoiding a fire would be a legit fear, there is only one way to get rid of the encampment. You must write a letter to the health department and CC the fire department and your local supervisors office. If the letter is from a resident, they will come immediately and remove said encampment. They respond to letters as this is written documentation that can leave them liable if they don’t act. You have to waste some money on paper and stamps, but well worth it if you want to get rid of a scary presence on your block.

    1. There is no electronic option or a phone number? Not for the savings, for the speed. A letter takes too long if someone feels there is a real danger.