I hear fire engines in the distance. With that, I am instantly reminded of last month's tragic apartment fire in the Mission that killed a man, injured six others, and displaced 65 San Franciscans from their homes. These are women and men, seniors and children, families and friends just like us who were ending their days and starting their evenings when, without warning or reason, their lives literally crumbled down around them. All but one escaped with their lives and for that we are all grateful. But finding other places in San Francisco to live, keeping their jobs, staying in school and moving forward in their daily lives so the flames don't define who they are will require tremendous effort and strong support.
I know, because it happened to me. When I first opened my eyes, I didn't know the flames were already on top of my building. It was Aug. 10, 2009, at approximately 11:15 p.m., and I'd just fallen asleep about 30 minutes earlier. I awoke to some voices in the courtyard outside my bedroom and a glow shining through the window shades. Probably another late-night gathering by some of my neighbors, I thought. But it was bright and noisy enough that I rolled out of bed and toward my window to see exactly what was happening out there.
I knew something was wrong when I saw that the light was coming from over the top of my building, not from down below in the courtyard. I sprinted out of my bedroom into the hall toward the back of my apartment.
The next room over was the bathroom, and I stopped cold. Right outside my bathroom window I saw flames from the side of the building next door licking right against my window. I ran a few more steps into the kitchen to see if the fire was already inside. It wasn't yet, but that's when I heard — BANG! BANG! “GET OUT NOW! FIRE!” — at my front door. My first reaction was a concern that they were going to knock down my door and cause a lot of unnecessary damage. So I threw on my jeans and shoes, grabbed my wallet, phone, and keys, ran down the stairs and out the door. I never slept there again.
The three-alarm fire burned out my flat and the other two apartments in my building as well as one next door. As I sat at the curb, I wondered what would come next. Eventually, I learned that the cause of the fire was a cigarette flicked on our back fence by a careless smoker, but knowing that didn't help.
What did help were the neighbors and friends and family who quickly offered me support and a place to stay until I could recover whatever was salvageable, take a deep breath, and figure out what to do next. I was fortunate that my fire happened when the rental market was soft and apartments could be found, especially if you were highly motivated to move in as quickly as I was.
In less then a week, I had rented a small apartment just a few blocks away — and my move-in with one bag and a handful of stuff was possibly the easiest move-in of all time. I am still sleeping on the bed bought for me by the Red Cross, still using the furniture and silverware donated by neighbors and law school classmates, still surrounded by the art and smiling photos my family and friends sent to replace the ones I'd lost. It was tough but I recovered fine.
So what can San Francisco as a community do to help the survivors of the Mission fire — and home fires both large and small, many of which never get much public attention at all? Donate directly to the funds set up for Mission tenants and to the Red Cross and other groups that are providing badly needed direct services to them. Strongly support our firefighters and Fire Department by ensuring they have full staffing and are prepared to be ready for the next fire.
We should also make the changes that are urgently needed to keep fire-displaced tenants living in San Francisco and to prevent fires that should never happen. I was glad to see Supervisor Jane Kim quickly propose legislation to keep tenants from being permanently evicted from rent-controlled units by yearslong repair delays of their fire-damaged building.
Kim's proposals to incentivize owners of apartment buildings to bring the units back into use as quickly as possible rather than let them become blighted should be adopted by the Board of Supervisors and mayor without delay. I also hope City Hall won't waste time passing the proposal by Supervisor David Campos to ensure San Francisco's apartment buildings have the most vigorous fire-safety inspections possible, with building inspectors given the tools they need to make sure fire alarms work, sprinklers are operational, and safety equipment is up to date. Preventing fires from happening is the cheapest and best fix of all.
San Francisco is a resilient city with such a lengthy history of our residents being burned out of their homes by fires and coming back stronger than ever that our official city seal features a phoenix bird, rising from the ashes. That's why every San Franciscan should see people displaced from their homes by a fire not just as victims or tragic figures, but as everyday San Franciscans, who could be someone we've met or someone we know. It could even be us.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.