Fire in the City:
The San Francisco Fire Department, once again, comes to the rescue
By John Gollin • Photos by Jane Richey
San Francisco firefighters saved 33 Barcelona Avenue by stopping the fire from spreading beyond the building’s roof and attic rafters
On December 29, 2008, the unexpected and unthinkable happened. At 5 a.m, a fire began in, and eventually consumed, a three-story building at 41 Barcelona Avenue in San Francisco, and quickly spread to the adjacent two-story building, which I co-own and where I reside.
I decided to write about my fire experience as a testament to the men and women of the San Francisco Fire Department who saved my home.
For the more than thirty years I’ve lived in San Francisco it has seemed as if almost every day I hear the blare of fire engine sirens somewhere in the City. In the past I didn’t think much about it. But now after “my fire”, when I hear those sirens, I say a little prayer asking God to protect the firefighters who are speeding to save lives and property. And then I thank God, for sending that group of firefighters to me four months ago, when they saved my property, and most likely saved my life.
My Fire Story
I’m not much of a sleeper, so it wasn’t unusual for me to be half-awake in the early morning hours of December 29.
I heard what I thought were raindrops hitting the bushes just below my bedroom window. The rain soon graduated to hail, which, a few minutes later was pinging against the window. I glanced over at my little dog, Max. In his younger days, any foreign sound in the dark would have gotten him up and barking. This day he lay still on his back in deep sleep, snoring.
Minutes passed. The hail grew in intensity. “It must be a storm,” I thought. I waited for a crescendo of thunder. Thunder never came. The hail hitting my window got louder and didn’t let up. I got out of bed to investigate. Pulling open my heavy blackout drapes, I saw bright orange walnut-sized bits of burning wood striking my window. The backyard was lit up like daylight. “What the hell is going on?” I thought to myself.
I raced from my room, down the hall to a door leading to the backyard. Stepping out onto the porch I saw the totally unbelievable sight – a massive fire engulfing the building directly north of mine. Shocked by the sight, all I could think was that I had to get Max and get out. I ran back to my room, pulled on some clothes, grabbed the still-sleeping Max, and bolted for the front door. Before exiting, I took a few seconds to scan for my prized “Obama for President” cap. It was nowhere in sight. Out the door I went, thinking, “I’ll never see this place again.”
The air smelled of smoke. The street filled with activity – firefighters running, pulling fire hoses to the blaze, neighbors emerging from houses, police and media helicopters hovering, with sirens in the distance getting louder. Reinforcements were on the way.
I maneuvered myself to the opposite side of the street, carefully stepping over the snaking fire hoses. I took a position between my neighbor, Gregg, and new neighbors, Lauren and Javier. Then I turned to look at the fire – still an unbelievable sight for me – flames shooting into the night sky.
Scores of firefighters attacked the inferno head-on. It was an impossible battle. (I was later told by one of the firefighters that by the time the SFFD had been called and had arrived at the building, it was already fully engulfed in flames.)
Someone standing behind me pointed out that the fire had spread to my roof. “That’s it,” I thought, “my house is a goner for sure!” The firefighters had their hands full with the main blaze and didn’t seem to notice the fire on my roof. Someone gingerly suggested to me my life would never be the same. He was assuming what I was assuming: that because of the power of the fire, my building was doomed to the same unfortunate fate as my neighbor’s building. We were wrong.
At that moment a phalanx of firefighters marched down the entrance walkway to my building. I couldn’t see, but could hear, the ramming down of the front doors to the apartments above mine. My upstairs neighbors, building co-owners and best friends, Dean Ferguson and Elizabeth Gardner, who occupy the second floor apartments along with their daughters, Marina and Alina, were away in Southern California for the holidays. For extra security they had bolted their entrance doors shut before heading south to L.A.
Lights went on in the front apartment. About 10 firefighters poured into the living room, pulled down the drapes, opened the windows, and began chopping into the walls and ceiling with their axes. Ladders went up onto our roof. Fire hoses were pulled up after them. More hoses were pulled up the front steps into the apartments. Within what seemed like only a few minutes, firefighters had doused the hot spots and the fire in my building was out. The worst had not happened for me. “Thank God” and “God bless you, firefighters,” I thought to myself.
An hour or so later when the fire was fully extinguished in both structures, the firefighters rolled up their hoses, packed up their gear, and headed back to their stationhouses.
At the fire’s peak, the SFFD estimated 92 firefighters were fighting the blaze. Chief Joanne Hayes-White was onsite much of the morning.
After the fire, throughout that day, SFFD vehicles and department personnel returned to our street, checking the scene, making sure the blaze hadn’t flared up. Each time they waved “hello” and asked, “How are you doing, sir?” “Is there anything we can do to assist you?”
The diligence and dedication of the SFFD has continued during the 17 weeks since December 29, the day of the fire. On at least 10occasions when I happened to be in front of my building, a fire truck with crew has pulled up. They disembark and walk over to 41 Barcelona, the site of the main fire.
They check the building and talk to the owners or contractors when they’re around, and they check in with me, wanting to know how things are going. “When will your reconstruction begin?” they ask. I always think how amazing it is that, weeks after the fire, they still show up. They still care.
These firefighters took, and are still taking, my fire very personally. It’s as if it happened to them. While researching the facts for this story, I’ve talked to numerous firefighters. They’ve told me they view themselves as guardians of the city: protectors of life and property. They’ve indicated that they do take every fire personally. If a fire happens in San Francisco, their city, then it’s happened to them. It’s that simple.
We San Franciscans are so fortunate to have this fire department with these firefighters and Chief Joanne Hayes-White at the helm, protecting us and our city.
Support the San Francisco Fire Department
Two months ago San Francisco Firefighters Union Local 798 began running full-page ads in various community newspapers including this month’s Northside San Francisco and the Marina Times. They’re asking for our readers’ support to prevent the return of “brownouts” – the practice of decommissioning between four to six fire engines every day on a rotating basis.
In 2005, the citizens of San Francisco voted in favor of a ballot initiative, Proposition F, also known as the Neighborhood Firehouse Protection Act. This initiative mandates that all of San Francisco’s firehouses remain fully staffed and continually in operational order 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Prior to its passage, the City had the authority, for budgetary reasons, to temporarily close fire stations and/or take fire department vehicles out of service.
In these financially challenging times, when budget cuts are being called for, there may be some politicians who are considering creative ways to circumvent the will of the people, and again make brownouts a standard practice. These politicians may feel that in some neighborhoods part-time firehouses would be adequate to protect the citizens of those particular San Francisco communities.
That’s just not an option that I think we San Franciscans can accept. Please see the firefighters’ full page ad in this issue and give the San Francisco Fire Department and its heroic men and women your full support. They deserve nothing less.