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Residents fume over lack of answers about massive San Francisco fire

A screengrab from a video captured by the San Francisco Fire Department shows the four-alarm fire at Octavia and Fell streets. | Source: Courtesy SFFD

More than a week after a fire gutted 14 under-construction condos and displaced four nearby households in Hayes Valley, San Francisco city officials still had few answers about how to prevent similar blazes or when they plan to reopen roads closed since the conflagration.

The lack of clarity infuriated residents who showed up to a public safety forum where the Aug. 1 fire dominated the discussion.

“I’m pissed,” Jennifer Laska, head of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, said after the one-hour town hall Monday night. “We got no answers on anything and no guarantee that someone’s going to reduce the risk of this happening again.”

The blaze that erupted earlier this month at 300 Octavia St. came after Laska’s group warned the city about past fire dangers, pointing to cases where unhoused people lit fires in the area to stay warm.

Jennifer Laska, head of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Laska said Monday that residents shared photos with her of unhoused people on Jan. 17 lighting a fire on the sidewalk under the scaffolding of the Octavia Street building that went up in flames last week. The group had warned the city about three other fires near the building as well, according to a May 30 letter Laska sent to city officials about fire concerns.

At the Monday town hall, officials spoke with residents about their concerns following the fire but provided no new information about what ignited it or whether it was caused by unhoused people. All they would confirm is that the investigation is ongoing.

Officials were similarly ambiguous about how the city plans to prevent such fires from happening again or when they expect to reopen roads that shut down after the fire due to safety concerns.

During the meeting, police echoed comments made by Mayor London Breed last week about the city’s limited authority when it comes to dealing with homeless encampments.

The San Francisco Fire Department cleared a four-alarm fire at Octavia and Fell streets that occurred early in the morning in the Hayes Valley neighborhood on Aug. 1. | Source: Isaac Ceja/ The Standard

“We can’t force anyone into shelter, so we continue to respond as resources continue to allow,” SFPD Commander Derrick Jackson said.

SFPD Lt. David Parry said police will put out small fires in response to 911 calls reporting them, but that the officers can’t arrest people for lighting them if it’s not attempted arson or part of some other crime.

READ MORE: In Wake of 4-Alarm Fire, Mayor Defends San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach

Neither Supervisor Dean Preston nor Supervisor Matt Dorsey attended Monday’s meeting, nor did any of their aides. The Board of Supervisors is currently on recess and due to return to regular scheduling on Sept. 4.

Jackson also said that police are shorthanded as the officers try to address other issues in the city, like the storied drug crisis plaguing the Tenderloin.

“If you look at what’s going on in the Tenderloin, there’s a big push to address drug-dealing," Jackson said. "There’s a big push to address other issues in the city."

Katherine Chu, who advises the Mayor's Office about alternative emergency responses that don’t involve law enforcement, noted how a lack of police staffing prevents the city from responding to incidents in a timely manner.

No Timeline for Road Reopenings

When asked about plans to reopen the street, members of multiple city agencies were unable to provide concrete answers.

“At Northern Station, I’m unaware of the timeline for the streets to be reopened,” Parry said.

A representative from the San Francisco Fire Department suggested that the owner of the burned-down building needs to demolish the building before the city can clear the way for traffic again.

“Are the streets not going to be reopened until the property owner complies with removing the hazard?" Laska said. "Is that what we’re waiting for?”

“I probably couldn’t answer the question directly, but I imagine that’s what’s going on,” SFFD Deputy Chief of Operations Darius Luttropp replied.

San Francisco firefighters at the scene of the fire. | Source: Isaac Ceja/ The Standard

Similarly, a staffer from the Mayor’s Office was unable to say when the streets would reopen.

“We’ll try our best to find out the answer, but it sounds like part of it may be up to whoever the property owner is,” Chu said.

The building’s developer is Greenview Planning and Design, based in Walnut Creek. No one from the company was on hand to answer questions at the Monday meeting, and The Standard was unable to reach the developers by publication time.

Meanwhile, as residents await answers, they’re also rallying to help their neighbors.

The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association has started a GoFundMe that aims to raise $100,000 to assist those displaced by the fire.