Fires Between Highway 101 and Potrero Hill Fanned by Interjurisdictional Challenges

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Most San Franciscans probably believe that if a neighborhood experiences a plethora of intermittent fires someone would attempt to find a way to stop them. But when it comes to blazes occurring between Highway 101 and Potrero Hill, overlapping jurisdictions amongst several state and municipal agencies has left oversight largely to nearby homeowners, who are long on concerns but short on expertise.

Since 2013, multiple fires have occurred annually between the highway and San Bruno Avenue, from 17th to 20th streets. In 2015, 10 blazes happened in five months. Last summer, there were five in one week. Flames have been so close to properties that residents have deployed their own hoses to assist the Fire Department.

The combustions prompted residents to begin meeting last year under the auspices of the San Bruno Fires Project, inviting public officials to hear their concerns. Residents have complained to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which owns the land, and reported suspicious activity to the California Highway Patrol (CHP), which has law enforcement jurisdiction over it.  The San Francisco Fire Department has indicated that its mission is to douse fires, not to investigate or recommend corrective actions.

There’s round agreement that the fires are triggered by activity engaged in by homeless people, who are attracted to the cover provided by overgrown landscape. Weeds are rampant; the brush is a fire hazard during drier seasons. 

“The homeless aren’t necessarily the problem. We just need to make this particularly area not camping friendly,” said San Bruno Avenue resident Thomas Crowell, who emphasized that it’s not a place where campfires for warming, cooking or meth-related activities can be safely overlooked.

A solution has yet to be identified as to how to keep trespassers out or reduce the area’s attraction to them. While residents have previously pointed to Caltrans as the primarily responsible party, the agency doesn’t appear to have the capacity to solve the problem itself. After fires last summer, Caltrans committed four work crews to cleaning up brush and weeds but, according to Caltrans landscape supervisor Sang Sao, the department doesn’t have the budget to engage in this task forever. 

Jean Bogiages, a Utah Street resident and San Bruno Fires Project’s principal organizer, said the parcel was poorly designed 60 years ago, making it difficult to control the vegetation. She said the irrigation system, which was installed in 1954, hasn’t worked in 15 years.

In 2015, Caltrans replaced a chain-link fence with a sturdier one that effectively closed one access point near homes located at the top of the hill. However, trespassers can still enter the area from the highway below.  Residents have witnessed fires starting on lower ground make their way up the slope. According to Kanwar Kelly, who lives near the Mariposa Street offramp, there’s another fence on municipally-owned land that’s been knocked over; he’s seen people crossover it. He’d previously asked the City to sell him the property so he could maintain it himself.

San Bruno Fires Project members hope that someone or some entity can bring all responsible parties to the table to develop a comprehensive solution. 

“We don’t want to solve emergencies,” said Bogiages. “Then you don’t have a complete solution to the problem.”

The group met last month with representatives from State Assemblyman David Chiu’s and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton’s offices, as well as staff from Caltrans and SFFD. However, CHP, the City Department of Homelessness and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), which have appeared previously, didn’t attend.

Progress has been made. A meeting held last fall resulted in CAL FIRE issuing a letter ordering Caltrans to abate the hazard. State Fire Marshall Dennis Mathisen indicated that the issue was new to CAL FIRE, stating in the letter that despite “hundreds of fires in the area” none had been reported to its offices for investigation. While the agency gave Caltrans 30 days to respond with a plan, San Bruno Fires Project members have yet to see one.  Sao relayed that the two agencies conducted a site visit together last month, giving the impression that they were preparing a written study. However, CAL FIRE Deputy Supervisor CJ Stinson told the View that isn’t the case. He did say that thanks to the San Bruno Fires Project the two agencies are now communicating.

Meanwhile the fires continue. Last month’s meeting began with San Bruno Avenue resident Joe Treinen announcing that there’d been a blaze that morning on the other side of a sound wall ten feet from his house, the fourth time there’s been combustion on that spot.

“The flames are high enough that you can see them over the wall,” he said.