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Homeless encampment fires in San Francisco doubled over 5 years, causing millions in damage

Two fires are seen burning in homeless encampments within days of each other underneath freeway underpasses in the SoMa District. | Source: Josh Koehn and Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Fires linked to homeless encampments and unhoused people in San Francisco have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic—doubling from about 400 emergency responses in 2019 to more than 800 just last year—and the surge has contributed to significant property damage totaling in the millions, The Standard has learned.

Many of the fires connected to the city’s homeless population involve people burning trash, cooking food or simply trying to stay warm in the winter, according to thousands of reports obtained from the San Francisco Fire Department. But other incidents were described as malicious or reckless. Fires believed to be connected to homelessness have led to at least $2.5 million in property damage since 2019, numerous injuries and even the death of a woman under a freeway overpass in 2022. 

Reports going back a decade were curated by the fire department using abbreviated search terms like “encamp,” “tent” and “homel”—the last of which is short for “homeless”—and then reviewed and winnowed down again by The Standard for other details indicative of homelessness. While the figures are not exact due to inconsistencies in the way the fire department has reported incidents over the years, the findings provide the best picture to date of the dangers encampment fires pose to homeless people and neighboring San Franciscans, as well as the burden placed on city resources. 

Officials for the fire department and the Department of Emergency Management told The Standard that the city has made efforts to better track fires connected to the city’s homeless population in recent years, contributing to the rapid rise in the number of documented incidents. 

However, Darius Luttropp, deputy chief of operations for the fire department, told The Standard that there has “definitely been a substantial increase” in homeless encampment fires in recent years.

‘Our blocks have been taken over’

One theory about the surge in fires is that since the pandemic, homeless people have had far greater access to hand sanitizer, which helps prevent the spread of bacteria and disease—but also acts as a powerful fire accelerant. 

Sam Dodge, director of street response coordination for the city’s Department of Emergency Management, confirmed that city officials have been giving out hand sanitizer for Shigella outbreaks going back a decade, but distribution “really ramped up during Covid.”

Two firefighters extinguish a fire behind a chain-link fence, water spraying through the air, under sunlight.
Firefighters put out a fire in a homeless encampment on Division Street in SoMa on Dec. 19, 2023. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

“I’ve seen people using it as a fire accelerant, because of its high alcohol base,” Dodge said.

Phillip Gibson, a 48-year-old man living underneath the Central Freeway, said he was burning hand sanitizer in his tent around five years ago when he woke up surrounded by flames. He narrowly escaped, but all of his belongings were incinerated, and his dog, Sonoma, had run away. 

Since the incident, Gibson said he’s stocked up on blankets and other forms of insulation to avoid using warming fires. But he’ll still start fires with the accelerant to cook pancakes. 

“I don’t burn too much hand sanitizer anymore,” Gibson said. “You’re really vulnerable.”

A man looks out from a tent.
Phil Gibson peeks out of his tent encampment under the freeway at the intersection of Duboce, 13th and Mission streets in San Francisco on Jan. 26. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

That vulnerability extends to the people living and working near encampments. 

Desirée Barrera, a hairdresser and owner of Proper Fox Studio in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, suspected it was only a matter of time until a homeless encampment fire caused serious harm. Her customers have been forced to walk into the street, she said, to avoid an encampment and the drug dealers and users it attracted.

On Oct. 13 last year, an encampment fire on Stevenson Street spread to Barrera’s car. Records provided by the Fire Department confirm that the blaze damaged three vehicles, for $47,628 in total damage. Prior to that incident, Barrera said, she had filed numerous complaints about outdoor fires to the city’s 311 phone line, with no results. 

A fence on fire.
A large fire connected to a homeless encampment damaged multiple vehicles on Stevenson Street last October. | Source: Courtesy Desirée Barrera

“Our blocks have been taken over by encampments more than ever before,” Barrera said in an email to The Standard. “Conditions never seem to lighten.”

Luttropp acknowledged frustration on all sides, from residents who worry that their homes and businesses could go up in flames to fire department personnel who are suffering burnout after responding to the same areas day after day.

“It’s that frustration with being unable to provide a lasting remedy,” Luttropp said.

Meanwhile, many homeless people who spoke with The Standard said they try to practice fire safety but see no other way to survive San Francisco’s wet winter nights without housing. 

People cook on a grill.
Quincy “Q” Martin, right, and a person who gave her name only as “Kiki,” gather around a small fire where they roasted hot dogs behind the Best Buy in the Mission District on Jan. 26. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Couper Orona, a former firefighter who was once homeless on San Francisco's streets, suggested the city should conduct more fire safety outreach to homeless people and provide hand warmers and canned heat devices that wouldn’t ignite if knocked over.

“It’s just heartbreaking when a tent is set on fire,” Orona said. “It goes up in seconds, and you lose everything.”

‘We yell and scream about the dangers’

Data provided by the fire department estimated almost $4 million of property damage with fires linked to homeless encampments over the last decade. However, many believe the toll to be far higher. Locals suspect an inferno in Hayes Valley that gutted 14 under-construction condos last summer—displacing eight people and causing millions in damage—started at a neighboring homeless encampment. Fire officials have not confirmed as much.

Jen Laska, the head of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, told The Standard that her neighborhood, which largely consists of wooden buildings, started seeing an uptick in encampment fires during the pandemic but has received “little to no” help from city officials.

“We yell and scream about the dangers of it,” Laska said.

A fire that started in a homeless encampment in the Tenderloin quickly spread to the adjacent building before it could be put out. | Source: Courtesy @mani444555222 on X/Twitter

San Francisco emergency responders received 32,431 calls for fires last year, suggesting that fires connected to homelessness were responsible for about 3% of all calls. On top of the fires, the department also deals with dozens of calls each year in which homeless people are reportedly pulling fire alarms—sometimes out of a need for care, and other times for dubious reasons. In one instance in 2016, a homeless woman on Market Street set off an alarm “because she needed a light for her cigarette,” a report said. 

Since 2021, the Union Square parking garage’s fire alarms have been hit more than two dozen times, leading fire department Capt. Eric Leal to summarize: “The homeless continue to pull the pull station alarms for no reason. There are no ramifications. … There has to be action taken against these individuals. They are a burden to society.”

The issue of encampment fires isn’t unique to San Francisco. In Los Angeles, a massive encampment fire shut down Interstate 10 for more than a week. 

A firefighter sprays water.
A firefighter attempts to put out a blaze under Interstate 10 near downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 11, 2023. | Source: Richard Vogel/Caltrans District/AP Photo

More than 4,000 people sleep on San Francisco's streets every night as the local shelter system often sits at capacity. There were 78 individuals on a waitlist for shelter on Tuesday, and in December, 363 children were on a separate waitlist for families as Christmas approached.

Still, many individuals refuse the city’s offers of shelter because they don’t want to forfeit their belongings or their freedom. Others say they fear living in close quarters with people who may be mentally unstable. 

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, contended that many of the city’s efforts to improve street conditions are undermined by people who refuse to enter a shelter. 

“The fires at encampments are symptomatic of a larger issue of people rejecting services 60-70% of the time,” Cretan said. “When people are unwilling to come indoors, we have a larger problem. And that’s what we’re trying to solve.”

‘I’m just surviving’

While many city officials described the increase in homeless encampment fires as a nuisance or a burden, they also recognize that in many cases they’re a lifeline. During the winter months, many homeless people seek cover from the rain and cold under doorways, bus stops and freeway overpasses. Some said they stay awake for days at a time due to the cold. 

“One time I was crying, it was so cold,” said Quincy Martin, a homeless man born in the Fillmore neighborhood. “I hadn’t slept for over two days.”

Javier Teyer, a 66-year-old man who immigrated from Mexico to San Francisco’s Mission District in 1985, said his tent gets particularly cold because it’s under Interstate 280, where the sun doesn’t shine. He tries to keep his wood fires contained, he said, but he’s come to expect daily visits from the fire department asking him to put them out. 

Objects that were burned on the street,
The burned remains from a fire at a homeless encampment along 13th and Bryant streets in San Francisco on Jan. 23. | Source: RJ Mickelson/The Standard

When the fire department comes, Teyer pleads with them to keep the flame going just until it’s warm enough to fall asleep, he said. He worries that without the fires, he could fall ill and die. 

“Sometimes your hands freeze so bad they’re in pain,” Teyer said. “I’m just surviving.”

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com
David Sjostedt can be reached at david@sfstandard.com