A massive wind-fueled fire tore apart three buildings in the Western Addition near Alamo Square on Thursday, leaving some 60 people without homes just days before Christmas.
The scorching blaze began about 11:53 a.m. and quickly gained steam due to gusting winds, according to the Fire Department. Wind speeds recorded at San Francisco International Airport were between 17 and 23 mph at the time, the National Weather Service said. Nearly half of The City’s on-duty fire staff was called to the scene.
The fire broke out in the rear of 1502 Golden Gate Ave., a three-story wooden Victorian building, and spread to an apartment complex and a small single-family home on Elm Street, burning for three hours. An adjacent school sustained minor smoke damage, but it was vacant due to the winter break.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said roughly 150 firefighters were needed to battle the five-alarm blaze. She said Thursday’s windy conditions and the attached buildings made it difficult to fight the fire.
“It’s a stubborn fire,” Hayes-White said. “It’s very active flames.”
The cause of the blaze was unknown as of Thursday night.
Hayes-White said flames quickly reached the roof of the Victorian, which was built around 1900. It’s unknown on which floor the fire originated.
As many as 60 people were estimated to be displaced from 32 apartments, flats and homes in the three buildings, fire officials said. Three people were treated for injuries, including one firefighter for smoke inhalation and another for minor burns to the back of his neck, according to Hayes-White.
A nearby nursing home was evacuated of more than 100 residents because of potential dangers from breathing in smoke, Hayes-White said.
The extent of the overall damage was not immediately assessed, Hayes-White said, because fire crews could not enter any of the buildings.
The fire produced towering flames that shot high into the air, and smoke billowed out of all three buildings for several hours. Plumes of smoke could be seen and smelled miles away. The blaze was contained just after 3 p.m.
It was the largest blaze San Francisco firefighters have had to combat since 2005, when more than 60 people were displaced at 3330 16th St.
Hayes-White said when firefighters first arrived on scene they took an aggressive approach to contain the flames, but the intensity of the wind, flames and heat forced a different tactic.
Firefighters were called away from the blaze more than an hour after it began. They then started battling it defensively, spraying water from all angles, including from the ground and several ladder trucks.
Dozens of residents gathered at a temporary shelter nearby that was set up by the Red Cross to assist displaced families. One person, who declined to be identified, held himself up by a truck in shock of what happened.
The man was cleaning his home in the Victorian building when the fire alarm at the school went off. He said he thought nothing of it until a neighbor came by to warn him of the danger.
“It was total panic mode,” he said of when the neighbor came to his door. “I don’t know what happened.”
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was at the scene of the fire to assess the situation and give condolences to the victims.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” he said. “We’re setting up and doing what we can to help them deal with the consequences.”
Mayor Ed Lee said The City would do all it can to help the victims.
“There’s considerable damage,” he said. “We’re trying to locate temporary shelters. It’s so close to the holidays, not everyone will have an alternate place to go. We will help them in every way we can.”
By Amy Crawford
SF Examiner Staff Writer
Sarah Gordon was baking Christmas cookies for her family when she heard her building’s fire alarm go off.
“I had just gotten the oven pre-heated,” she said. “I walked out the door to see what it was and I saw the flames.”
With no time to spare, Gordon grabbed one of her two cats — the other had disappeared under the bed — and ran outside.
“The windows were already breaking and everyone was screaming to get out,” she said.
Gordon, 30, who lived in a studio apartment at 1015 Pierce St., was one of at least 60 residents displaced Thursday after a five-alarm fire tore through three residential buildings in the Western Addition neighborhood.
Two hours after the fire was reported at 11:53 a.m., firefighters were still working to knock down flames as a handful of residents sat in a makeshift evacuation center set up by the Red Cross in the social hall of the nearby Missionary Temple Church.
“We’re all kind of in a little bit of shock,” said Richard Lenhart, who was a live-in manager at 1015 Pierce, a three-story building with 25 studio and one-bedroom apartments.
Lenhart’s partner, Michael Pacia, said the couple were planning to spend Christmas with family in Citrus Heights. The gifts they would have brought with them were in their ruined apartment.
“A brand-new iMac, not even out of the box yet,” Pacia said, shaking his head.
Angel Plascencia, 19, a student at San Francisco State University, was planning to go to his family’s home in the Central Valley for Christmas. Now, instead of leaving, he plans to stay with friends to see if he can salvage anything from his apartment.
“I never thought I was ever going to experience anything like that,” Plascencia said, standing on the sidewalk in shorts and a T-shirt with a Red Cross blanket over his shoulders. “I was most scared when I was on the first floor and I saw the flames.”
Candice Lamarche, who lives next door to the church, dropped by to donate clothes.
“I actually had a house fire in Sacramento about five years ago, so I know what it’s like to lose everything,” she said. “You can’t really think because you’re so in shock. You don’t even have a toothbrush.”
Gordon, who left her apartment in flannel pajama pants and a pair of Giants slippers, had no time to grab her cellphone on the way out. But she borrowed a neighbor’s phone to call her father, and soon her parents, brother, sister-in-law and boyfriend were by her side.
“As we came through the Caldecott Tunnel, I saw the plume and said, ‘Oh, dear God, I hope that’s not it.’ And it was,” said her father, Michael Gordon, who had been in Walnut Creek when Sarah called.
But despite the tragedy, the Gordons were relieved.
“We have her,” Michael Gordon said.
“I just hope everybody else has as much support as I have to deal with this,” Sarah Gordon said.
What’s needed: Cash
Where: Visit RedCrossBayArea.org or call (888) 4-HELP-BAY, or drop by the Red Cross’ offices at 85 Second St. The Alamo Square Neighborhood Association also is accepting donations at AlamoSq.wordpress.com
The Red Cross of San Francisco is providing emergency aid for people who lost their homes and belongings. Spokesman Steve Sharp said they need cash to replenish their resources for the next disaster. He asked people not to donate clothing or housewares. “It’s hard for us to take in-kind donations, because we have to sort, clean everything,” Sharp said.
June 2, 2011: Two-alarm blaze at 133 Berkeley Way in the Diamond Heights neighborhood kills two firefighters. It’s the first time in more than six decades that two firefighters die in an S.F. blaze.
Feb. 5, 2009: Six firefighters are injured, including one critically, in a fire at 627 Felton St. in the Portola district. Arson is later deemed to be the cause of the blaze.
July 8, 2005: Last five-alarm fire recorded in San Francisco before Thursday’s blaze. The fire, located at 3330 16th St., displaced 66 people and caused more than $8 million in damage, but no one was injured.
March 9, 1995: Lt. Louis Mambretti, a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department, is killed in a blaze at 75 Everson Way in Diamond Heights. Mambretti dies after getting trapped in the residence by the automatic garage door.
Oct. 17, 1989: Multiple fires break out in the Marina district after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Several buildings were destroyed on Divisadero Street near Beach and Jefferson streets.
July 30, 1946: Four firefighters die in a fire at the Herbert Hotel on Powell Street near Union Square.
April 18, 1906: San Francisco is nearly decimated by fires that raged throughout The City after the Great Earthquake. About 25,000 buildings were destroyed from the roughly 30 different fires that erupted as a result of the quake.