Fires in San Francisco buildings hit a ten-year high in 2022, with several big ones striking this year too, as fire officials point out that residential, commercial, and encampment fires are all happening more frequently.
Back 2015, when the Mission District was seeing a number of residential fires that happened to coincide with a glut of pricey condos being proposed or built, there was a popular conspiracy theory that landlords were torching their own buildings on purpose in order to drive out rent-controlled tenants and build something shiner and more lucrative. Though according to SF Fire Department data, 2012 and 2013 were much worse years for the frequency of fires in San Francisco, and no landlord arson was ever proven.
That same fire department data shows that 2022 was the worst year for SF fires in ten years, according to a new Chronicle report. That report shows 319 commercial and residential fires in SF last year, the worst year since 2013 (357 fires) and 2012 (366 fires).
“I’ll be honest with you, 2022 was a bad year,” SF Fire Marshal Ken Cofflin told an SF Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee at a meeting last week.
There is a tendency to blame encampment fires for the uptick, and in some cases encampments were the cause. A tent fire spread to a building at 15th and Church streets last year (also charring an Amos Goldbaum mural). An early August fire in Hayes Valley has some blaming a nearby encampment, though the cause of that fire remains under investigation.
Encampment fires are not included in the overall fire data, which only represents residential and commercial building fires. But the fire department says encampment fires also increased in 2022, with 981 last year, compared to 757 in 2020.
Supervisor Dean Preston, in whose district that recent Hayes Valley fire occurred, is alarmed at how few resources are available to fire victims, who are mostly just referred to Red Cross volunteers.
“Our office is picking up the slack,” he told the Chronicle. “I have staff that will spend 20 hours the week of a fire just managing and helping to connect people to resources and pushing different departments to talk to each other. That’s really totally unfair to fire victims.”
But those are reactive measures, not proactive measures, to reverse the fire trend. Fire officials also blame a rise in highly inflammable, synthetic materials being used in construction, and older buildings that are grandfathered in out of 2008 sprinkler requirement legislation. To that end, Supervisor Connie Chan is considering proposing legislation to make sprinklers mandatory for all buildings within five years, and requiring sprinklers in new alternative dwelling units (ADUs).
Image via SF Fire Department