SAN FRANCISCO — Firefighters scrambled Friday to replace toys lost when the city's biggest blaze in more than seven years left more than 40 people homeless at the height of the holiday season.
The effort to help those displaced by the blaze came after firefighters saw ruined gifts strewn in the wreckage near the city's historic Alamo Square, Chief Joanne Hayes-White said.
"The main thing is no lives were lost, but particularly three days before Christmas, it's tough," she said. "We saw a lot of burned packages."
Firefighters have already sent about 120 items and expected to get a count later in the day of how many displaced families were still in need, said Sally Casazza, who chairs the toy drive program for the firefighters union.
The blaze caused at least $8 million in damage to the buildings and displaced 43 residents, who are being offered temporary shelter at a local church, said Capt. Jeanne Seyler. Firefighters still don't know what caused the fire.
A team of firefighters spent the early hours Friday dealing with hot spots left after flames engulfed three buildings a day earlier. Arson investigators planned to examine the burned-out structures to determine what caused the blaze.
The five-alarm blaze started in one of the neighborhood's trademark, three-story Victorian homes and spread to a nearby apartment building and a single-family home. A total of 32 dwellings were destroyed by flames pushed by strong wind gusts.
The Red Cross was sheltering more than a dozen residents who had nowhere else to go after their dwellings were destroyed.
About 150 firefighters, or half the department's daytime firefighting force, brought the fire under control after a near three-hour battle, Hayes-White said.
One firefighter was taken to a hospital with a burn to the neck, and a civilian was treated for mild smoke inhalation, Hayes-White said. A second firefighter was given oxygen at the scene. Firefighters believe all the residents escaped, though some pets were missing.
"It was a challenging fire to fight, but given the time of day, it was actually helpful because most people were out of their dwellings," the chief said.
Construction foreman Manuel Nevarez was working nearby and said he called 911 when he saw smoke. He then charged into the building and used a sledgehammer to break down doors.
"People were sleeping and kids were running down fire escapes," Nevarez told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It was a bad scene."
As the fire burned during the afternoon, a pillar of thick smoke rose over the neighborhood. Authorities closed several blocks, causing massive traffic jams.
Each year, the firefighters union raises money and seeks toy donations to provide gifts to needy children. The program has operated for more than six decades and gives toys to tens of thousands of children year-round, according to the fire department's website.
The toy drive found itself in a controversy earlier in the week when the chief nixed a plan for a group of strippers to present a $20,000 donation to the program at a city firehouse. The dancers, who raise money annually for the toy drive, presented the check instead at the warehouse where the toys were being stored.
San Francisco Firefighter's Toy Program: http://www.sf-fire.org/index.aspx?page=155