The cause of Tuesday morning's four-alarm fire on Octavia Boulevard, which displaced eight residents of neighboring buildings that were damaged, remains under investigation. But a neighborhood group is suggesting the city did not heed their warnings from two months ago about fires at homeless encampments in this very area.
Tuesday's blaze broke out around 6 a.m. at a building under construction at Octavia Boulevard and Oak Street. It quickly grew to a four-alarm fire that was being fought by 140 SFFD firefighters, and it caused damage to at least five neighboring buildings.
"We have eight neighbors, at least, displaced," says Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association President Jennifer Laska, speaking to KPIX. "The building across the street got so hot that all of the windows are cracked on the front. So we don't know how long those neighbors will be impacted."
Laska called attention Tuesday to a letter that her neighborhood association sent to city leaders in May, raising alarms about a spate of encampment fires along Octavia that occurred in late March and April.
"Hayes Valley has suffered a series of dangerous fires along Octavia Boulevard that started around tent encampments," Laska's letter reads. "There is currently an encampment on Octavia at Hickory where many of these fires have started. [The encampment residents] have been tapping into power at sidewalk utility access points and the light poles along Octavia Boulevard."
The letter points to a car fire that may have been intentionally lit on March 31, which occurred near a construction site, and another fire at the construction site on April 24, at Octavia and Hickory. A fire also reportedly occurred on April 25 in which a person had to be rescued out of a tent on the median of Octavia.
"We don’t know exactly how all of these fires started, but we do know how dangerous they are to our community," Laska said in the letter.
Supervisor Dean Preston, who is one of the city leaders addressed in the letter, responded with a comment to the Chronicle saying that he "received and responded to a letter from [the neighborhood group] about fires on Octavia, and promptly elevated with City departments." He added, "At this time, we do not know what caused this particular fire and will not participate in speculation."
Laska said in the letter that when Hayes Valley residents had complained to city departments about the dangers of the encampments, they were told that a December 2022 court injunction prevented them clearing encampments without being able to provide shelter to everyone there.
"The injunction, however, doesn’t bar the city from removing encampments that engage in illegal activity like splicing into city power or encampments that completely block passage on a sidewalk," Laska wrote. "The injunction does not bar the city from enforcing laws meant to keep all residents safe."
She added, "Our neighborhood and our city is literally being trashed and set on fire and you all are doing nothing about it."
Complaints like this, about encampments and the public health and safety issues they frequently pose, have been commonplace in multiple neighborhoods of the city over the last decade. But this incident, combined with the letter of warning from May, shines a bright light on how small hazards can turn quickly into large ones.
A spate of fires at the sprawling Wood Street encampment in West Oakland indirectly led to that area being cleared of all its residents earlier this year, after multiple legal appeals and court delays.
"When things like this happen, it feels like a gut punch," Laska says, speaking to KPIX. "You know, we're really trying hard to keep everyone safe, to make Hayes Valley a fun place that people want to come to. And then this… why won't our city officials actually do something about this? I don't understand. If they don't have the resources to do it, they need to call in resources from the state, national guard, everything to triage these issues."
The SF Fire Department says the result of their investigation into the fire will be made public once it is complete.
Update: Shortly after this story was posted, Mayor London Breed posted to Twitter, saying that while we shouldn't rush to assume the cause of the fire, she "want[s] to address concerns raised by the neighbors about nearby encampments."
Second, we are working to address these encampments, but we are under a federal injunction that limits our ability to move tents, even when people refuse shelter. For example, our HSOC team led 5 multi-day operations in the last 6 months.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) August 2, 2023
Some have pointed out issues like power splicing causing dangerous conditions. I want to be clear – City workers can and will work to prevent these dangerous conditions when they see them or when reported.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) August 2, 2023
We're expanding resources – we have the 2nd most units of permanent supportive housing per capita of any city in the country. We've increased shelter by 50% since 2018. This lawsuit and federal injunction put significant limits on our ability to address encampments.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) August 2, 2023
Finally, it’s important to reiterate that yesterday’s fire is under investigation and too early to speculate the cause for how it happened. While the investigators conduct a thorough investigation, we'll continue with our outreach efforts with the limited abilities we have.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) August 2, 2023
Update 2: Dean Preston's office has also issued a statement in response, saying, "Our office has never suggested that nothing can be done about fires or threats to public safety because of the Court's injunction regarding sweeps. The court's order prohibits enforcement of laws against street camping given the city's lack of available housing/shelter, but does not limit enforcement of laws regarding accessibility of the public right of way, threats to public health and safety, and/or acts of vandalism."
Photo via SFFD