SAN FRANCISCO — A fire at a homeless encampment early Wednesday killed a woman and left three other people in critical condition as they sheltered during frigid weather, authorities said.
The fire erupted shortly after midnight under the Interstate 280 freeway onramp in the Glen Park neighborhood. The area is overgrown and firefighters at first thought they were battling a wildland blaze but then learned that some people were actually inside the overpass, fire officials said.
Fire Department video showed firefighters using ladders to climb into the overpass crawlspace. It took firefighters about two hours to reach all four people trapped there, authorities said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation. Overnight temperatures in the city dropped into the 40s.
“It’s devastating that people are living in conditions where they are up inside of a freeway to stay warm. The humanity of it is just heartbreaking,” said Lydia Bransten, the executive director of the Gubbio Project, which provides daytime shelter at St. Johns Church in the Mission.
The city opened emergency shelters but Bransten told KGO-TV it is hard for homeless people to get to them.
“You have someone who has their belongings, their tent ... it’s complicated," she said. “We all think here’s the problem, here’s the solution. But we are talking about thousands of people and we are talking about hundreds of beds.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement saying he was “heartbroken and outraged" by the death.
“This tragedy is a devastating reminder of the dangers tens of thousands of unhoused Californians face every day, and the critical urgency we must bring to protecting the most vulnerable among us," Newsom said. “All of us should be ashamed of the unconscionable status quo that sees too many Californians essentially discarded by our society. There is nothing humane or compassionate about allowing tragedies like this to occur."
Fires at homeless encampments have been rising, according to Fire Department figures cited by the San Francisco Chronicle. There were 724 encampment fires reported from January 2021 to this January, compared to 757 in 2020 and just 457 in 2019.