Firefighters keep watch at site of North Beach fire

Firefighters have contained a large, 4-alarm fire in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood Saturday night and will continue monitoring it overnight through Sunday afternoon, fire officials reported.

San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Jonathan Baxter said firefighters will be extinguishing “hot spots” for a few more hours to ensure the fire doesn’t flare up. Baxter said the department is maintaining a “fire watch” at the building with at least one fire engine and one fire truck.

Baxter said firefighters arrived to the scene 2 minutes after they were dispatched, attacking the blaze from inside the building within 6 minutes. The fire was at two alarms just after 7:30 p.m., but it quickly grew to a 4-alarm blaze.

Once the firefighters determined there was no one inside the building, Baxter said they switched to a “defensive operation” to extinguish the flames by pouring water on it from outside the building.

The fire department initially said 15 people would be displaced from 659 Union St., but updated that number to one after learning that 14 people worked at the address, but did not live there. The one person who is displaced owns the business and left their keys and personal belongings in the fire, Baxter said.

Firefighters kept the flames contained to one building, but Baxter said residents in the building next door, at 575 Columbus St., could be displaced due to water damage.

Fire officials are still determining how many residents will be affected, he said, but it will not be an “extended displacement”. The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection is on scene to assess the building’s integrity, Baxter said.

The building that went up in flames has businesses in the lower level and 27 vacant residential units in the upper levels, according to Baxter. Fire officials are working with San Francisco police to determine the cause and the origin of the fire.

Baxter said 140 firefighters were on scene to combat the blaze when it began, but several have been sent home. He emphasized that the city’s day-to-day needs were met despite the large response.

Black smoke and flames were billowing into the air soon after the fire began and the fire department asked people to avoid the area.

Rania Nour, who has a home in San Francisco, was eating dinner this evening at Il Pollaio, a restaurant on 555 Columbus Avenue that shares a block with 659 Union Street. She said the smell of smoke started permeating the restaurant, but most patrons thought it was the smell of grilled chicken.

CORRECTION An earlier version of this story misidentified witness Rania Nour with an incorrect last name.

When she stepped outside the restaurant, she saw smoke and flames rising into the sky. She walked by bars blaring with music and packed with St. Patrick’s Day revelers, unaware of the fire, right before police began evacuating the area.

Nour said:

“It was raining burnt ashes. … It happened so fast.”

She could still see the flames billowing into the sky once she returned home near Russian Hill and Lombard Street.