The fire was reported just before noon at a three-story, wood-framed apartment building on the 1500 block of Golden Gate Avenue in the Western Addition. Then fueled by the wind, it spread to part of a school, a single family home, and a much larger apartment complex where 28 units were damaged. It took firefighters nearly three hours to get under control and fire crews plan to remain on scene until morning to make sure there are no flare-ups.
"We had fire on the top floor of that building; it rapidly spread to the delta exposure, which if you're looking at the front of the fire building it's to the right," San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said.
Hayes-White says by the time firefighters arrived, the building on the corner of Pierce and Golden Gate was also in flames.
"I ran in and called 911, told them our building was on fire because I didn't know where it was," apartment manager Richard Lenhart said. "I could see the smoke coming in at the north end of the building through one of the windows."
Lenhart says he helped get everyone out of the building and most of the pets have been accounted for.
There were three minor injuries: one woman who suffered smoke inhalation, one firefighter with smoke inhalation, and one firefighter had minor burns to his neck.
Firefighters searched the buildings, with the exception of the top floor of the building where the fire began. Firefighters determined it was too dangerous to go in.
One hundred-forty firefighters were called to the battle the five-alarm fire. Midway through the fire it became so dangerous that firefighters were ordered out of the buildings and off the roofs. The building where the fire started is over 100 years old and there were fears it could collapse.
An elderly care facility a few blocks away was briefly evacuated due to smoke concerns.
Surveying the damage, Sheriff Ross Mirkirimi said he was saddened by the destruction in the neighborhood he represented for years on the Board of Supervisors.
"Especially around the holidays, and that's what really makes this that much more heartbreaking," Mirkirimi said.
Some of the people who lost their homes said they were too distraught to talk to ABC7 on camera. One woman said it was like having a death in the family.
After the smoke cleared and firefighters declared it safe to return, a few people got to go inside and retrieve a few items.
"I've been back inside twice to retrieve a few [items] like keys, cellphone, which I neglected to get out earlier, and a computer I got out too," Dan Furtado, a fire victim, said.
"I rescued a lot of things like our fish. We ended up being really lucky so hopefully we can extend something to the people on the top floor that have nothing," Sarah Chase, a fire victim, said.
The Bay Area Red Cross set up an evacuation center for the displaced residents at 1455 Golden Gate Ave. About 39 people came to the center, a lot of people opted to stay with family or friends, and 12 people received vouchers for hotels. The vouchers are good until Wednesday morning and the Red Cross will again open up the center on Tuesday, so that if folks need to extend their hotel stays, they can.
There is some other holiday help for those people displaced from their homes. A new law will let fire victims move into a new apartment with the city paying the difference in rent.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.