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Neighbors told San Francisco leaders about rash of street fires before huge blaze

San Francisco Fire Department clears a fire at Octavia and Fell streets that occurred early in the morning in the Lower Haight neighborhood on Tuesday. | Source: Isaac Ceja/ The Standard

Hayes Valley residents warned San Francisco leaders about fires in the area months before Tuesday's blaze displaced eight people and damaged five buildings.

More than 140 firefighters responded to the fire at 300 Octavia Blvd. as an unoccupied construction site burned, authorities said. The development would have brought 24 apartments if completed.

The developer did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson Cpt. Jonathan Baxter said Tuesday the cause of the blaze was still under investigation.

The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association penned a May 30 letter about fire concerns to Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Dean Preston, the Department of Emergency Management director and Healthy Streets Operations Center Director Sam Dodge, along with the City Attorney's Office, state Sen. Scott Wiener and other officials.

In the letter, the group pleaded with officials to investigate multiple fires near tent encampments along Octavia Boulevard.

"Our neighborhood and our city is literally being trashed and set on fire and you all are doing nothing about it," Jennifer Laska, president of the group, wrote in the letter. "We are asking you to take these issues seriously and remove encampments that pose a danger to our community when we report them instead of throwing your hands up in the air."

The letter listed three fires near the site of Tuesday morning's blaze:

  • April 25: A tent encampment went up in flames in the median of Octavia Boulevard and Hickory Street.
  • April 24: A construction site was set on fire near an encampment at Octavia and Hickory.
  • March 31: A car was set aflame near a tent encampment and construction site at Octavia and Hickory, a block from Tuesday's fire.

The Standard contacted the San Francisco Fire Department to verify the incidents and is awaiting a response.

"We are aware of past incidents that were found to be related to encampments," a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office said. "The city understands residents in the area are frustrated, and the mayor remains committed to keeping our streets safe and clean through a number of efforts to include regular homeless outreach led by our Street Outreach Teams. However, [Tuesday's] incident is actively under investigation with SFFD, and it is premature to speculate the cause of this incident."

On Wednesday, Breed emphasized that the investigation into the fire is ongoing but pointed to a federal injunction on tent encampment removal while addressing neighborhood resident's concerns.

"...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," Breed tweeted. "They successfully connected 12 people into shelter, but others did not accept. We can't force people to accept or stay in shelter and we're unable to prevent people from setting up an encampment in area that was just cleaned. This is the situation we are in."

Other complaints about the construction site date back to 2021 and allege that homeless people broke into the site and started fires or hopped the fence and attempted to break into nearby homes, according to the city's Department of Building Inspection complaint tracker.

Both claims were investigated by the department, but no evidence of wrongdoing or noncompliance was found.

'We Are Horrified'

"We are horrified. We are angry. We have displaced neighbors because of this," Laska told The Standard on Tuesday, adding that embers and ash are still all over the neighborhood. "We're thankful that it sounds like there weren't any injuries, but there is a ton of property damage. It is infuriating."

Laska said after her group contacted city officials, she spoke with the Northern Station police captain and discussed the limitations the department deals with regarding tent encampments. She also said she received a letter from Preston in early June in which he said he was elevating the issue.

"We share the concern regarding fires on Octavia, and promptly elevated this with City departments," Preston wrote in the letter. "We have followed up with SFPD and SFFD to see if there are any updates on the fires, and with the HOT team and DPH to see if there are any further updates regarding engagement with those living on the streets along Octavia."

Beyond that, Laska said, there has been no communication from city leaders regarding the group's concerns about encampment fires along Octavia Boulevard.

"If this fire was, in fact, caused by all the things that caused the other fires," Laska said, "we are going to have some serious discussions with the city, and I'll be following up with the fire department to understand what the cause of this fire was."

Joel Umanzor can be reached at jumanzor@sfstandard.com