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Fires that destroyed San Francisco minibuses were ‘intentionally set’

An April 9 fire that totaled several cars is being investigated by SFPD's Arson Task Force. | Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department

Two fires that destroyed a fleet of minibuses parked beneath a freeway overpass in San Francisco last month were intentionally set, San Francisco Fire Department investigators said.

Ten minibuses, a school bus and a trackless trolley burned late at night on April 9, with damages totalling $200,000, according to the fire department’s report.

“It was toxic,” said Dan McCarthy, who lives a block away from the lot and witnessed the fire. “I can still smell it when I walk past there.”

An April 9 fire engulfed several minibuses, producing a large cloud of smoke and charring the underside of the I-280 overpass in Potrero Hill. | Courtesy Dan McCarthy

McCarthy said the fire’s cause was connected with a street encampment that spilled into the parking area after people cut holes in the fence to enter the lot. 

The city has been under a court order to not break down encampments since December, although sweeps have still taken place. 

The blaze was caused by two fires that originated in the passenger compartments of two of the vehicles, a 34-seat passenger bus and a Mercedes passenger bus. The fire spread and damaged nine other buses late April 9, causing $200,000 in damages, the May 10 report said. 

An April 9 fire destroyed several minbuses. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The fire was reported at 10:09 p.m. April 9 at a lot at 910 Iowa St. underneath an I-280 overpass in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. The fire department responded at 10:16 p.m., and after a battle that involved 40 firefighters, put out the blaze at 12:45 a.m.

A video of the fire shows flames coming out of the side of several buses and a large cloud of smoke emerging from the area.

Officers with the Arson Task Force are investigating the fire, police said. 

A TV crew interviewed unhoused people living nearby. One of them, Kristen Stewart, reported that Molotov cocktails were thrown to start the fires. 

The fire department acknowledged the presence of unhoused people in the area, but did not suggest that they contributed to the fires and said there was no evidence of Molotov cocktails being thrown. 

Two fire-damaged minibuses sit in a lot at 910 Iowa St. in San Francisco on May 22, 2023. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

The fire department has not determined the heat source that caused the fires. Authorities would not provide further information about the fire investigation, and no suspects have been identified.

The minibuses were owned by chartering company San Francisco Minibus, whose owners reportedly started the business 45 years ago after fleeing martial law in the Philippines. Montsie Guerrero, granddaughter of the company’s owners, later created a GoFundMe asking for $100,000 to help the business recover.

The company was renting the lot from the California Department of Transportation and was in good standing, the agency said. The owners notified the agency about the fire on April 10. CalTrans declined to comment on the investigation into the fire.

McCarthy said that he hasn’t seen any encampments near the lot for roughly a week.

“It’s been pretty clean,” he said.

San Francisco Minibus did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.