Have you had a chance to see Kiri, the most adorable, cartoonish little Japanese fire truck that lives most of the time in Bernal Heights? Well, you should know that this pandemic-year addition to the city is not an official San Francisco Fire Department vehicle. But it is a functioning fire truck, and awfully charming.
Kiri has an Instagram which as of this writing has almost 1,960 followers, and her owner is longtime SF resident and erstwhile Bernalwood blogger Todd Lappin. Lappin answered some questions this week for the Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub all about how he came to purchase this 131-inch 1990 Daihatsu fire truck from a tiny mountain town near Nagano.
"I imported Kiri directly from Japan with a local importer I got to know," Lappin tells the paper. "Essentially it was retired by the town, went through the auction system. It sold for almost nothing, because who wants a 30-year-old tiny fire truck?"
He adds, "It’s one of those things that seems really intimidating until you do it. If anyone’s thinking about it, I’d say do it."
Lappin had some experience importing a Japanese car previously, and after he got to know the ins and outs of the process, he decided to seek out something cooler and more unique for San Francisco, as a whim. Enter Kiri, which served a volunteer fire department in Kirigamine, Japan for about 30 years, and came to SF about five months into the pandemic. The truck is made to navigate hills and narrow streets, and it's never had its own water tank — it has a pump that relies on suction, so you just need to park it next to a pond and drop a hose in, and you're good to fight a fire.
By serendipity, the name of the town she comes from, Lappin notes, has a San Francisco parallel.
"Here’s the really sweet thing — 'kiri' means fog and 'gamine' means summit of the mountain," Lappin says. "The town is literally called 'foggy peaks' in Japanese, which is amazing."
Lappin notes that the streets and slopes around Bernal make it a lot like a Japanese mountain town, and Kiri has been right at home. It's not really meant for highway travel and barely gets to over 60 miles per hour, but he says he's also driven it up to Sonoma a few times, and it could always be put to use to fight a wildfire there — of which there will surely be more.
He's also taken it out on family outings, he says, and his kids get a kick out of all the attention they get on the streets.
And, he adds, the PA system on Kiri is pretty intense.
"I’ve used it a couple of times," Lappin says. "After the election was called, I basically just drove around the city playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In' really loud. ... That was really great. Around Christmas I played some classic holiday tunes. Pumping Tony Bennett and Dean Martin out of the thing."
And ever since Kiri made her Instagram debut, some people back in Kirigamine have caught wind that their little fire truck lives in San Francisco, and, Lappin says, "they love it. … It’s helped forge a bridge between these two places in this funny way, because people are able to see this decontextualized thing having silly adventures in a place it’s not supposed to be."
Photo via teenytinyfiretruck/Instagram