Illegal dumping, burning debris continues to be fire hazard in San Francisco

Fire departments across the nation are often called to fires where people illegally dump waste or allow it to pile up, with many neighbors bearing it, but not cleaning it up or complaining to authorities. For cities and towns, it can be a high-stakes game of waste Whack-A-Mole.

In its ongoing effort, San Francisco's Department of Public Works crews collect 450 tons of debris each week; the entire weight of a fully fueled and loaded 747 jumbo cargo plane.

Illegal debris piles in known dumping areas are mostly construction and remodeling debris, appliances and furniture. The other big challenge, pop-up debris piles, often but not always associated with homeless encampments. 

"It could attract vermin. You may not know what hazardous wastes there could be. A lot of it is construction debris; that's a big thing and there could also be fires associated with that if somebody sets it on fire," said SF Department of Public Works Public Information Officer Rachel Gordon. 

At known illegal dumping sites, the city has surveillance cameras, sting operations and hefty fines. That's improved the situation but old, bad dumping habits are hard to break.

Then there are the often encampments that the city receives complaints on for being unsightly, unsafe and unsanitary.  

"We have crews that are out every morning, starting at 4:30 in the morning, who go out and not clean the encampments, but just to clean up around the encampments," said Ms. Gordon. We did notice that a few homeless folks try to keep the area around them debris free. 

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Another problem, people putting their garbage all around public and private trash cans on the streets. For that, the city is considering trash cans and bins that are hard for scavengers to get into and throw garbage on the ground. 

"We don't have an unlimited resource of cleaning crews. We do have a lot and they're out there doing their job every day," said Gordon.

In addition to direct city efforts, residents can dial 3-1-1, to report abandoned waste.

"That call will get transferred to Recology. We've got 12 trucks in the city that are assigned to pick up abandoned waste the city and we'll send trucks out in less than four hours. We're picking up over 200 locations a day," said Recology Spokesman Robert Reed.

This is not confined to big cities; not by a long shot. "I was talking to some folks up in in Colusa County and in Shasta County about what they're doing because they're starting to see illegal dumping in rural areas, in forested areas," said Gordon.
It's a human problem only humans can solve.