SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Fire officials in San Francisco on Sunday were responding to criticism from SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin about the approach crews used during a huge four-alarm fire in North Beach the night before.
Peskin, who represents the neighborhood, was openly critical of the efforts Saturday night, claiming firefighters waited too long to start dousing the flames with water.
On Sunday, at least one fire commissioner told KPIX 5 Peskin was wrong.
The three-story building in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood started burning before 8 p.m. Saturday and escalated quickly. The department said the fire was under control by 1 a.m.
As the four-alarm flames raged, more than 100 firefighters on scene surrounded the building and helped evacuate customers from busy restaurants and storefronts below.
Some bystanders grew frustrated because for some time they did not see any hoses in place to douse the flames. Some even screamed at firefighters.
Supervisor Peskin told reporters Saturday that the fire department’s response was painfully slow.
“I know the chief says they’re fire experts, but I can tell you tonight was a total failure by the fire department and that starts at the top,” said Peskin.
The supervisor was so angry at what he claimed was a 20-minute delay before hoses began dumping water on the flames that he called on the fire chief to resign.
“I called her during this event repeatedly. Her voicemail is full, but even her high-ranking staff that got here realized that they were not on the job,” said Peskin. “There is no excuse for it. Not whatsoever. I mean, this is a town that is earthquake prone. If they can’t deal with an issue like this, we’re in deep trouble.”
Fire department staff made their initial response to the criticism Saturday night.
“With all due respect to the supervisor, he had it wrong,” said SF Deputy Fire Chief Mark Gonzales.
Fire officials told KPIX 5 those observing the firefighting efforts may not have understood the strategy — called “offensive” — which requires hoses to be pulled inside the building, so they are not as visible to people watching from the outside.
Firefighters inside the building quickly realized they had a major problem. The apartments burning on the upper floors were under renovation and so they did not have walls and ceilings, just exposed wood.
“When it’s just wood, it just lights, and it happened quickly,” explained SF Fire Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese.
The commissioner said the fire lit up so quickly that part of the roof collapsed within minutes. At that point the internal firefight was deemed dangerous and had to be abandoned.
Firefighters switched to a defensive strategy and began directing hoses to pour water on the outside of the building.
Alioto Veronese says firefighters did the best they could under the circumstances.
The civilians who were standing by and watching this, what they weren’t seeing was the firefighters inside the building. And so I can see why they would think, ‘Oh, why aren’t they fighting?'” said Alioto Veronese. “They are fighting that fire. They are assessing the fire when they get here. They decide the best way to do it based on science, based on their training and they attacked this thing the appropriate way.”
On Sunday, Peskin said he stood by his comments from Saturday evening. He is calling for an investigation into the fire responese.
A total of five businesses were destroyed or damaged in the fire. Some store owners KPIX 5 spoke to said they were frustrated because this was the second time this building has burned in the last four years.
They said the city should have done more to improve the building.
“And to see this happen again? I mean, I don’t know what else to say. I really don’t,” said Coit Liquors owner Shadi Sughayar. “When you come to see your business — your life — is gone twice in four years, the city, what do they do for me? Nothing!”