Criticism Swirls Over Saturday’s North Beach Fire

Sup. Aaron Peskin is calling for the fire chief to resign over the handling of the St. Patrick's evening fire, but other city officials defend the response.

Image: San Francisco Fire Department via Twitter

There were fortunately no injuries in Saturday night’s four-alarm fire in North Beach, but there may still be one casualty. Sup. Aaron Peskin is calling for the immediate resignation of San Francisco Fire Department chief Joanne Hayes-White, claiming that the blaze spread quickly because firefighters were not given the order to shoot water onto the flames for nearly 40 minutes.

“I’ve been in and out of this job for 20 years,” Sup. Peskin, who represents that North Beach district, told the Examiner. “I’ve never seen anything like this. They just blew it tonight.”   

The fire appears to have broken out before 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at Union Street and Columbus Avenue in North Beach. Given that this was a peak crowd time for St. Patrick’s Day revelry in a neighborhood full of nightclubs, we are exceedingly fortunate that there were no injuries. (However, the Chronicle reports that one firefighter was injured Sunday during cleanup procedures at the site.) The fire has displaced at least 15 people from their homes, according to NBC Bay Area, and has badly damaged at least half a dozen businesses including Coit Liquors, Tuk Tuk Thai Cafe, and Il Pollaio.

But in the Facebook Live video above taken on the scene Saturday night, you can hear bystanders expressing the same concerns as Sup. Peskin.

“Why would they just let it burn?” one person asks.

“This is getting worse. In the last five minutes, this has gotten much worse,” another watcher worries.

Of course, these are the opinions of people who do not fight fires for a living. Chief Hayes-White told NBC Bay Area that, “What people might have mistaken is that they didn’t see fire [fighting] water like this because at that point we were offensively fighting the fire, i.e. from inside the structure.”

Watching a fire from the hotel bar. from r/pics

Interim mayor Mark Farrell came out in support at the fire department’s handling of Saturday’s blaze.

“While there is a live four-alarm fire burning it is inappropriate for anybody to criticize how the professional firefighters of the SFFD, with decades of experience, are handling the situation,” Farrell said in a statement.

Peskin tells the Examiner he plans to call for a Board of Supervisors investigation into the response.

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