Suspicious fires in the Castro District leave residents in shock

Devastating fires that ripped through two Castro District apartment buildings about a block of each other Thursday, displacing 17 people, came only days after police arrested a “deranged” homeless man who threatened to set the neighborhood ablaze, according to the owner of one of the buildings.

Firefighters put out a “very simple” trashcan fire around 4:25 a.m. at Market and Sanchez streets. Only minutes later, they battled two raging apartment building infernos just blocks away — one at the corner of 17th and Hartford streets and the other 16th and Market streets, fire officials said.

No one was injured except for a firefighter, who suffered a minor ankle wound while battling one of the blazes, San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge said.

The 17 residents who were displaced lived in the Victorian building at 3620 16th St. The four-unit building on 17th Street was undergoing renovation and was unoccupied.

That building’s owner, 45-year-old Brian Kendall, said he and his family, which includes his child, moved out the building six weeks ago to allow for construction. The fires were “clearly” the work of arsonists, Kendall said.

“Supposedly over [at 3620 16 St.] they dumped accellerent on the front doors and tried to burn the people alive,” he said. “Here [17th Street] they went around back and just found a little hidden corner and started the fire over there.”

The building at 16th Street reached a second alarm at 5:11 a.m. and was under control about an hour later. It caused some damage to a building next door. Fire crews remained on the scene late into Thursday morning, chucking burnt wood and debris into a pile on 16th Streets.

Meanwhile, stunned victims consoled each other on the sidewalk. A sobbing woman clutching to a dog said her life was in the building. She was too upset to discuss what had happened.

Aurora Kirby and her son Erin, said, “We went out the back with just this,” as they held to some clothing, a laptop case and a handful of keys.

“Everything we own is in there,” Kirby said.

Another resident, Ying Hsiao, said she spent the night at her mother’s home to celebrate Chinese New Year. She arrived Thursday at 9 a.m. and said her dog, Gabe, a small white terrier, was inside the building. The dog was saved.

A married couple living in a unit next door said they lost their couch, rug, photographs and some musical equipment when the fire spread.

“Our living room got destroyed,” said Michael Winger, a music producer, standing on the sidewalk his wife, 30-year-old Jessica White Winger.

“Everybody is in shock,” Winger added.

He added, “The Fire Department was amazing.”

One of the firefighters, who claimed to be was a DJ, rescued some of Winger’s musical equipment.

The firefighter moved Winger’s keyboard to another room and tried to cover over his speakers to protect it from being drenched by the fire hoses.

The displaced residents will either stay with family or in Red Cross-provided hotel rooms, Red Cross spokeswoman Melanie Finke said.

The 17th and Hartford fire also grew to a second alarm, then spread and caused damage to a neighboring building, Talmadge said.

It was not immediately available whether the homeless man arrested for the fire threats last weekend was still in police custody.

The extent of the fire damage to all affected structures was not immediately known.

All the blazes are suspicious, Talmadge said, confirming the fires originated at the exteriors of the buildings.

“The trashcan fire in and of itself was not suspicious, however investigators will look at that in combination with these other fires,” she said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro District, said he “threw on some clothes and went out there” as soon as he heard news of the fires on television.

“It’s really disturbing, especially when it could possibly be a serial arsonist,” Wiener said.

That there are so many wood-frame buildings in San Francisco made the suspected arsons an even greater concern, he added.

Wiener said he hadn’t heard any “particular threats” of arsons in the neighborhood.

An army of firefighters responded to the blazes. Residents of the buildings lauded fire crews for their professionalism.

Talmadge said Thursday’s fires illustrated the need to keep fire stations in The City opened. Budget problems have threatened fire station closures.

Less fire coverage throughout The City could leave some communities vulnerable in situations where multiple companies are responding to major fires, she said.

“Our goal is to prevent anybody from not getting a response,” Talmadge said.

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