Cigarette or BBQ Coals May Have Sparked Huge Mission Street Fire

A view of the fire on Mission Street near 29th Street on June 18, 2016. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Fire Department)

A five-alarm blaze that caused $14 million in damage to six buildings along Mission Street in June was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to a Fire Department investigation.

Fire investigators say in their report on the June 18 conflagration that they found no evidence the blaze was deliberately set.

The Bernal Heights area fire most likely started on the back of the roof of 3316 Mission St., a building near the intersection with 29th Street that housed a Cole Hardware store, the report said.

It spread to five other structures that housed apartment units, the Playa Azul and El Paisa restaurants, the 3300 Club bar, the Walden School summer camp and the Graywood Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel.

One of the owners of Cole Hardware said Thursday the store is unlikely to return to the Mission Street location.

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"It was a total loss," Adrianna Karp said of the store. "It was very eerie and surreal. The ceiling dropped off, the floor fell through."

The property owner is fielding pitches from developers, and Cole can't compete with those offers in the current market, Karp said.

"It's looking pretty unlikely that we will be going back there," she said. Cole has three other locations in the city and is opening two more in the coming months.

The Fire Investigation

The department's report includes accounts from firefighters and a police officer who were among the first on the scene, as well as from Cole Hardware employees and residents of some of the involved buildings.

Officer Joel Hornstein told investigators he was driving in his patrol car near 29th and Mission streets "when he noticed smoke and flames coming from 'every window and door'" of the Graywood Hotel.

"He also stated that he located and carried an elderly female out who was having a difficult time descending the stairs from the 2nd floor," the report stated. "He observed the smoke level was so low he could only see the lower half of the elderly female."

After the fire was subdued, investigators encountered extensive damage: floors, ceilings and hallways collapsed; a roof on one building that had been completely consumed by flames; and windows that had blown out because of the intense heat.

The first clues of a potential cause came from an unidentified woman living in one of the residential units. She told investigators she saw smoke and flames coming from an area where there were two plastic trash receptacles. She said she occasionally saw a neighbor smoke on the adjoining balcony. She stated "sometimes he uses an ashtray and sometimes he does not," the report said.

Two unidentified Cole Hardware employees told investigators that they saw smoke and fire coming from trash receptacles on the roof. One of them said "the 'whole trash can' was on fire," according to the report.

Investigators found the melted remains of one trash receptacle they say had burned into the roof. Another receptacle was also severely damaged by heat and fire. It was in that area officials believe the fire began.

"In this immediate area we located the remains of burnt combustible materials," the report stated. "In the area we also located the remains of discarded smoking materials."

Investigators also believe that "improperly discarded smoldering barbecue charcoals" could have been placed in the trash receptacles.

One of Many Mission Area Fires

The fire is the latest in a series of large blazes in the Mission District that have led to concern among residents.

A five-alarm fire damaged six buildings, including one that housed Big House Inc., on Mission and 22nd streets on Sept. 4, 2014.

On Jan. 28 2015, a four-alarm blaze killed a resident in a three-story commercial and residential building on the same block.

On March 11, 2015, a fire killed two members of a family at 24th Street and Treat Avenue.

And, on Nov. 8, 2015, a three-alarm fire on 16th and Shotwell streets destroyed the Rolling Stock tire and wheel shop and severely damaged an adjoining apartment building.

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Those blazes and others in the same district have prompted top fire officials on several occasions to emphasize that arson is not believed to be the cause of any of the area's large fires.

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