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4 cars set on fire in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, rattling residents

Fire trucks and firefighters appear in a darkened street.
Park Street residents said firefighters responded quickly after a series of car fires broke out on New Year’s Eve. | Source: Courtesy Tyler McGoffin

Putting out fires is not how you want to start a new year—but that's what happened for residents of a sleepy street in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood on New Year's Eve.

Firefighters and police officers responded to reports of cars ablaze in the 300 block of Park Street, between Andover Street and Holly Park Circle, around 9:30 p.m. Sunday and helped to extinguish fires in four unoccupied vehicles, according to the San Francisco Police Department. Police said witnesses reported seeing people setting the cars on fire and then fleeing the scene.

In security camera footage viewed by The Standard, a person is seen holding a large canister and then pouring what appears to be gas on the sidewalk, the street and the top of a car. The trail of gasoline subsequently illuminates in flames.

READ MORE: Man Allegedly Tries To Set San Francisco Hotel on Fire After Thieves Target Him

Carlton McMillan, who lives on the block, told The Standard his neighbors' security footage also showed the perpetrator pouring gas onto garages, into the engine bays of cars and even up the stairs of one home where he said children were celebrating New Year's Eve.

"It could have been much, much worse," McMillan said Tuesday.

All four of the vehicles that were set on fire were totaled, he said.

The San Francisco Fire Department confirmed that it responded to the incident but referred questions to the police department. A spokesperson for SFPD would not say whether the incident is being investigated as arson. They declined to comment on the claims that gasoline was poured onto garages and on the stairs of a residence.

The incident is still under investigation.

A gray car has a shattered windshield and a burned up side.
Lila Nelson's family car was set on fire and its windshield was broken on New Year's Eve. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Down the street from McMillan, a burned-out car sat in the driveway at 395 Park St., where Lila Nelson lives with her parents and sister. Nelson was playing Cards Against Humanity with her boyfriend, Malik Shabazz, at her house when the flames erupted.

"It was like a horrible movie," Nelson told The Standard, "just totally surreal."

She said her family's car had its windshield broken and gasoline was poured on the seats. Nelson, who is not a dog owner, said she strangely found two unopened bags of dog treats inside the car afterward.

Shabazz said his car was also set on fire and completely melted to the ground. The spot on the street where it had been parked was covered with metal and paint on Tuesday.

"I have stress-induced migraines," Shabazz said. "And I had to call out of work because of this."

The other two cars that were set ablaze were owned by a neighbor in his 90s, according to McMillan. The Standard couldn't reach the neighbor on Tuesday.

Trevor Chandler, who is running to represent Bernal Heights as the District 9 supervisor, took to social media to express his frustration after speaking with residents.

"This is vile," Chandler said in a video on X. "You hear nothing about it in the news; you hear nothing about it from our supervisor, who is completely MIA."

Current District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she plans to meet with neighbors and police later this week. Ronen said she hoped to have more information and perhaps even an arrest by then.

A man stands in a black shirt in front of a yellow door.
Tony Leo, who lives on the block where the cars were set on fire, says he refuses to be scared off by criminal activity. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Park Street resident Tony Leo, who was out of town when the fires occurred, said the incident is adding to the sense of mayhem in the city. Leo said he and his neighbors have seen a number of petty crimes in recent years, including garage and car break-ins and package thefts, but the Sunday night incident was ridiculous on a whole other level.

Still, Leo said he wouldn't let the criminal activity scare him off.

"You can't let all the badness get the best of you," he said. "Because then they win."

Garrett Leahy contributed to this story.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com