Mission 'Big House' Fire Building Had No Smoke Alarms or Sprinklers

San Francisco firefighters responding to a blaze on Mission Street between 22nd and 23rd streets. (Lee Fang via Twitter)

The building destroyed by a five-alarm fire last fall in a crowded part of San Francisco's Mission District had no smoke detectors or any sprinkler system, KQED has learned.

The Sept. 4 fire at 2632 Mission St. injured five people, including three firefighters, and caused close to $5 million in damage to six structures.

Most of the damage, though, was to the building that housed Big House Inc., a large "dollar store"-type retail store.

Investigators determined that the fire began in the sales area or showroom of the store, which was on the building's first floor. But seven months later, they have not been able to conclude the cause of the blaze, according to a newly obtained report by the San Francisco Fire Department.

The structure was built in 1916. Current code does not require sprinklers and detectors for older buildings, said Bill Strawn, a spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection (DBI).

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"That was a time that preceded any requirements for fire safety elements, such as sprinklers or even possibly a fire alarm system," Strawn said in an interview.

Before the fire, the agency's inspectors had not set foot inside the building in the last 13 years.

"The last time DBI was there was in 2002," Strawn said. That year, the building's owners got permits to do seismic retrofit work on the structure.

Currently, building inspectors check on such structures if they receive a complaint and do not normally do spot checks on them, Strawn said.

The September fire was the first of several blazes, including one a block away, that have led Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim to push for stronger enforcement of the city's building codes and for fire safety rules to be expanded to govern older buildings.

In fact, Campos said one of those recent fires, at 24th Street and Treat Avenue, underscored new dangers from the city's housing crisis.

Last month, a Board of Supervisors committee held a hearing that focused on preventing fires in the city. The city's top fire investigator, Capt. John Darmanin, told the panel the Big House fire was so destructive that evidence of how the blaze may have started was "totally consumed."

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Strawn said the building was demolished in late February and early March.

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