Small fires, mostly from encampments, are on the rise in San Francisco

SFFD estimates $140 million in combined property and contents damage in past two years

By Will Jarrett

Special to The Examiner

Throughout 2020, an average of 12 fires burned in the Mission every week. In neighboring communities, things were not much better. Fires leapt 43% in the Tenderloin, 63% in the Castro/Upper Market area and over 70% in SoMa compared to 2019. Taken as a whole, fires in San Francisco increased by more than a quarter within a single year.

And in 2021, fires remained elevated above normal levels. The City endured more than 4,200 fires in 2021, compared to approximately 3,400 in 2019, according to public San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) data.

San Francisco Fire Department data shows that The City experienced increased fires over the past two years largely due to a rise in so-called garbage fires. This is a broad label used by SFFD that includes lots of different scenarios, but in general it means the fires happened outdoors and involved trash. With shelters shutting their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many San Franciscans had nowhere to go but encampments. These are often extremely unsafe, and the combination of combustible materials and open flames can turn tents into tinderboxes.

Lt. Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the fire department, said that frontline firefighters attributed many of these fires to encampments. Although they are generally small, their impact should not be underestimated, he said: “Any fire is dangerous – especially in San Francisco, where we have such a condensed city.”

The department’s data does not record an increase in injuries or fatalities from fires over the past two years, but there was major property damage. Records indicate an estimated $81 million in combined property and contents damage in 2020, and $59 million in 2021. Baxter said many of the recent fires were caused by people in and around tents using open flames to cook and keep warm. Drug paraphernalia found at the scene of some blazes suggests that some were started in the preparation of drugs, he added.

To read the full story, visit Mission Local.

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