Frank Choy’s patience ended when his curtains glowed orange.
A predawn phone call Jan. 19 jolted awake the St. Francis Memorial Hospital surgeon and his wife at their home near Sutro Heights Park. “Frank, there’s a fire,” said the voice on the other end.
The 31 San Francisco firefighters who arrived to fight the three-story conflagration next door had to figure out how to reach it first. The blaze was on a rear lot that sits on a steep incline accessible only via a footpath on National Park Service land.
Crews had to break down fencing and storm through thick, wooded underbrush to run hoses and douse the fire that lit up Ocean Beach a steep cliffside away.
The Richmond district neighbors were lucky: the wind that morning was blowing west. Had it blown east toward The City as normal, all three houses on their 48th Avenue block “would be gone,” the head firefighter at the site informed Choy.
The cause of the fire is officially under investigation, but Choy said he knows what happened — and who is to blame.
Next door to Choy’s home sit two enormous houses that have rear windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Though they are grander than many homes seen even in the choicest of San Francisco neighborhoods, they appear empty. The homes have decaying roofs, rotting window frames and flaking stucco.
They also shield from the street large, wooded backyards that neighbors say serve as on-again, off-again homeless encampments and secret urban grottos for partying youths. These havens have repeatedly caught fire, each time summoning the authorities to deal with a problem that merely repeats itself.
John Ringelmann also knows the situation well, living nearby on La Playa Street.
“As far as I can tell, there were [homeless people] living in there for years,” he said.
The larger of the two homes has acquired a “haunted house” reputation around the neighborhood with a single light that occasionally shines from an upstairs window, but little else to indicate occupancy.
There is, however, someone home.
Visitors to the front door are greeted with a host of signs barring solicitation and discouraging ringing the doorbell; there’s an email address instead. Visitors also apparently are recorded by the two video cameras in the window facing the entryway.
Behind the unwelcoming door lives Wing King, who on Jan. 19 had called Choy about the fire. The practicing physician in his 60s owns both derelict homes. Choy said King occupies the haunted house while the other is used for storage. The properties are in such bad shape that fire officials have deemed them an official hazard.
King bought one of the properties, at 641 48th Ave., in 1980; he acquired the adjacent home in an estate sale around 2000. But the hillside that nearly burned is steeped in San Francisco history.
The land was a part of former Mayor Adolph Sutro’s estate. After Sutro died, it eventually passed hands to Gustave Moeller, according to property records. Moeller, who built homes in both the Richmond and Sunset districts along with San Mateo County, constructed the home in which King lives — a Roaring ’20s-era, 3,900-square-foot spread — in 1926.
He lived there until his death in 1931, according to the city directories on file at the Main Library.
The four lots of prime real estate that abut Sutro Heights Park and National Park Service land — protected open space — also are perfect for illicit lodging. The land is private and thus not patrolled by the city teams who regularly clear parks of campers and homeless folks. The wooden fence that once surrounded the property hides all activity. That and ample cover from the trees provide a warrenlike hovel in which one could live, unseen, almost indefinitely.
Or until the next fire.
Firefighters have doused blazes on King’s property five times since 2004, according to records. Once they climbed over a fence that “collapsed inward” in order to reach a small brush fire. A homeless encampment went up in August 2010. In February 2012, a man claiming to be a cop himself told police he was clearing the property. Other times, dried-out leaves and branches — the organic fuel available is ample — smoldered or blazed, once in a firepit in October.
Branches that King had cut from his backyard trees about a year ago and left to sit on the ground appear to have provided kindling for whomever wished to warm up — and the fuel that nearly consumed King’s and Choy’s homes Jan. 19, fire officials said.
Why King’s properties have fallen into such shambles is unclear. He appears to have financial means. While tax liens in the tens of thousands of dollars are repeatedly placed on his home, according to records, he eventually pays them all in full.
King’s medical license is current, according to the state Medical Board, which lists him as an internist practicing endoscopy at UC San Francisco. He practiced for a time at California Pacific Medical Center, records show.
He has been sued regularly over the years, but not because of neighborhood fire risks. Rather, the suits are related to real estate dealings, mostly — his mother in Hong Kong, former business partners and a bank that extended a $1 million line of credit. He lost that large case — as he did The City’s lawsuit for nine false 911 calls made between December 2005 and July 2007 — by failing to show up to court.
King did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His ex-wife, who lives in The City, also would not comment and asked that she and her children not be contacted.
The four-lot block was briefly listed in 2006 for several million dollars. No sale was made, and the agent, Realtor Barbara Callan, did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s unclear what, if anything, The City can do. An aide for Supervisor Eric Mar, who represents the area, said the situation hasn’t been brought to their attention.
If King does not clean up, he could be subject to small fines, but otherwise faces no readily apparent penalty.
Past nuisances to neighbors — like when King reportedly parked a fleet of old, inoperable cars that leaked fluid onto the street — have passed, but the neighbors say there is now a threat. Choy and others are mulling their options, such as a lawsuit.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “It’s a waste of history, and it’s not a good thing for the neighborhood.”