2 Investigates: Neighbors furious over fires on Caltrans-owned land

- Homeowners living on Potrero Hill are fed up and demanding action from Caltrans in the wake of nearly a dozen fires that have broken out on state-owned land adjacent to their homes.

Many neighbors in the 600-700 blocks of San Bruno Avenue believe the fires are being sparked by residents of a homeless encampment on the land owned by Caltrans between Highway 101 and their homes near 19th Street in San Francisco.

2 Investigates has discovered that neighbors have been complaining about the situation since 2013, yet fires continue to break out and threaten homes.

“It’s an emergency situation. They need to take care of it before a much bigger catastrophe happens,” Stephen Lewis said after taking home video of a recent fire.  It came right up to the back of his property, which sits adjacent to the stretch of state-owned land.

“I smelled smoke,” Lewis said. “Then some orange flames started licking up and, I knew it was a pretty big. I told my son to get his shoes on we were going to have to get out.”

Firefighters, as well as homeowners armed with garden hoses, eventually put the flames out.  No one was injured and no structures burned.

“All the sudden, I got a knock on the door saying, ‘Fire, fire!’” neighbor Joe Treinen said. “And, then, you know, to see flames around your house.  It’s a very scary thing.”

“It was coming up the slope of the houses,” neighbor Mike Ryan said.  “I think we’re lucky... we’re lucky

Ryan said he’s documented at least nine separate fires burning on Caltrans’ property.

2 Investigates has learned that number is now up to at least ten fires over the last five months. Records from the San Francisco Fire Department show there were also two more fire in that area in 2014.

On many of the San Francisco Fire Department reports, the source is listed as “homeless” from “cooking” or “encampments.”

“They’re attacking my life,” Ryan said. “When they start endangering my life, neighbors’ lives, my son, and my wife’s life, that becomes something more than just putting up with homelessness. That becomes someone who’s creating arson.”

2 Investigated spoke to several of the homeless people who call that camp home. Many said that they do smoke, camp, and cook with open fires on the property next to the San Bruno Avenue homes.

“Yeah, we gotta cook to... to eat,” one homeless man said.

“Homeless constantly come in here,” Treinen said. “At least ten to 12 tents here at one time,” he added while pointing to the embankment leading down to the highway.

But residents say the blame does not solely lie with the people living in the encampment. 

“I blame whoever owns that property,” Ryan said.

State records show that Caltrans owns the property and has owned most of it since the 1940’s.

“It’s not my property that’s being caught on fire, it’s Caltrans,” Ryan said. “Where’s the responsibility of that?”

Caltrans’ own records show that homeowners have been asking the state to take responsibility since 2013, with a report form that year citing the “homeless” creating a “hazard.”

“The neighbors are rightly concerned,” San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. She shared her concerns for the residents and for her firefighters.

“It’s dangerous for your firefighters?” Palombo asked.

“Anytime we go out the door, there’s a risk,” Hayes-White said.

“It taxes the system?”

“Yes. Anytime we go out the door, it does tax the system.”

“Especially when it’s the same place, the same call over and over again?” Palombo asked.

“Correct.”

The Chief also said that she believes part of the blame lies with the property owner.

“We have concerns it’s the property owner’s responsibility,” Hayes-White said.

“Caltrans?” Palombo asked.

“Yes. Yes.”

“They certainly are aware of the problem that exists and the frequency with which we have gone out to respond,” White continued. “As recently as within last week we’ve contacted them... we’ve asked them repeatedly to be good property owners just like we expect everyone else in the city.”

But neighbors say they are not satisfied with the response so far.

“It’s a system issue that’s not being resolved,” Ryan said. “What is it going to take? Is it going to take a death?  Somebody’s house being lost?”

2 Investigates tried several times to discuss this issue with Caltrans’ District 4 Director Bijan Sartipi.  All interview requests were denied.

“You don’t think as the head of Caltrans for this division he’s accountable?” Palombo asked Caltrans Spokeperson Bob Haus.

“Yes, he is,” Haus said.

“Then why can’t he respond?” Palombo asked.

“Because I am responding for him,” Haus said.

“Caltrans has known about this problem since 2013.” Palombo went on.

“Yes, we have, and we have been going in repeatedly,” Haus replied.

“What do say to these family members that they believe their lives are in danger every night?”

“We are doing everything we can,” Haus said. “We are responsible for maintaining the highway system. That is the definition of our responsibility.”

“Your responsibility is that you own that property.”

“Yes.”

“Even the fire department says this is a problem on your property,” Palombo said.

“Right.”

“So, why aren’t you taking care of that property?”

“We are taking care of that property. You can’t do anything more. We’re going in once a week,” Haus said.

Resident dispute that workers are actually going onto the state-owned property once a week to secure it from homeless campers. 

Caltrans says it has also met with residents, responded to emails, and planned a new $500,000 wrought iron fence to secure the area. Currently, a chain-link fence that appeared to contain holes and other disrepair issues surrounds the property.

When asked about the plan for the new fence, Caltrans could only say it may come as soon as March 2016, but added that the funding had not been approved yet.

“I want something done... now!” Ryan said, adding that he believes Caltrans has not done enough to fix the problem. “Lives are being disrupted and possibly being ended because of someone’s irresponsibility.”

No one has been injured from any of these incidents, and no structure has caught fire. 

Since 2 Investigates began looking into the situation, Caltrans has gone in and removed several homeless encampments. Just last week, Caltrans also meet with SFFD and other city officials to take a closer look at the situation. Still, residents worry.

“Then they’re going to come and say, ‘We’re sorry you lost your child,’” Ryan concluded. “I’m sorry, it’s going to be way too late.”

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