Why is the Mission Burning Up?

San Francisco real estate is cooling off — at least when it comes to structure fires. During the previous decade, fires in San Francisco have been on a gradual decline, from a peak of 350 fires in 2007 to a 10-year low of 186 in 2015.

But not in the Mission. There, fires have blazed at a relatively steady rate of about 17 conflagrations per year. By the last week of 2015, there had been 19 fires in the Mission, including the fatal fire last January at 20th and Mission streets that left almost 60 people homeless.

Why does the Mission continue to burn?

“That's a good question,” says Fire Department Deputy Chief Daniel De Cossio, San Francisco's current fire marshal.

He doesn't have an answer, though he posits it might have something to do with the construction common in the Mission. Buildings in the city's most in-demand neighborhood tend to be old, made of wood, and packed tightly together.

In December, De Cossio's staff published a report intended to allay fears that arson was behind a recent spate of fires. Out of more than 60 fires in the Mission over the last four years, only one was determined to be arson, according to the Fire Department — which at that time also discovered the Mission's outlier status.

“I'm surprised to hear about this,” says Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission and plans to call the fire department before a City Hall hearing, where he'll ask for more information about the Mission's stubborn flammability.

To explain this phenomenon, De Cossio's investigators will sift through 10 years' worth of fires in the Mission, including 200 already-closed cases, as well as fires where the cause has yet to be determined — of which there are hundreds.

Two months ago, there were 407 unresolved fire investigations in the Mission — multiple years' worth. That number's now down to about 300, and De Cossio said his arson unit should be able to thoroughly review and close almost the entire backlog in six months.

Not everyone agrees.

“That doesn't pass the smell test,” says John Darmanin, the arson unit's former head, who was removed from his post in October after asking loudly, and often, for additional staff.

To tear through about 100 investigations in such a short time calls their results into question, Darmanin says. “The only way to accomplish that many reviews is to rubber-stamp them.”

Perhaps coincidentally, the arson team was finally expanded immediately after Darmanin's ousting.

So, by mid-2016, the fire department might have a clear, reliable explanation for why the Mission District keeps going up in smoke and if anyone is responsible. Or, maybe not.

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