Fire officials blame Mission fires on overcrowding

Supervisor David Campos Wednesday pressed fire officials for the reasons behind a string of large fires in the Mission District, including a five-alarm fire earlier this month that displaced 57 people and damaged six buildings.

At a hearing before the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, Campos said the June 18 fire at Mission and 29th streets is “just the latest in a string of tragic fires in the last few years.”

Nearly 200 people in the district have been displaced by fires, many of them low income Latino families, and three killed since 2015, Campos said.

“To me, this fire is just too much,” he said. “For the community, we have had enough.” According to Campos, while fires in the Mission District were only 3.3 percent of all fires citywide in 2005, in 2015 they were 9.4 percent. He said many constituents, including those not normally prone to conspiracy theories, fear arson may be behind the seeming increase.

However, fire officials speaking at the hearing said the percentage change was not due to an increase in fires in the Mission District, but to a decrease in fires elsewhere in the city while the number of fires in the Mission remained relatively steady.

In addition, overcrowded housing, a large number of older wood-framed buildings, a lack of space or setbacks between buildings and overloaded electronics all increase the potential for larger fires in the Mission District, according to fire officials.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said, noting that similar problems also occur in Chinatown:

“We are seeing six or seven people in these units, closets being used for little nurseries. … These fires we’re seeing are based on electronic circuit issues and the overcrowding.”

Investigations into 42 working fires in the Mission District since 2014 have so far found that 32 were accidental and none of them were incendiary, or intentionally set, although eight have been deemed “undetermined” and two remain under investigation, fire officials said. In Bernal Heights, of nine working fires, four were found to be accidental in nature, one incendiary, two undetermined and two remain under investigation.

The cause of this month’s five-alarm fire remains under investigation, although officials have determined it began in the building at 3312-3316 Mission Street, which housed a Cole Hardware and four residential units.

Once it started, however, it spread rapidly to a total of six buildings and firefighters struggled to access and control it because of the lack of space between the buildings, officials said.

The Department of Building Inspections issued orders to demolish two of the buildings after the fire, including the building where the fire started. Officials today said property owners for those sites have picked up permits, meaning work should begin shortly.

Most other property owners have also picked up permits to begin repairs. However, Daniel Lowrey, deputy director of inspections, said the property owner for 31 29th St. was referred for a hearing after failing to pick up a permit within the required 72-hour window:

“The goal is for owners to enact repairs as soon as possible for tenants to return.”