Sunday, May 15, 2011

Goodbye, Firehouses

Many years ago, a neighborhood firehouse in San Francisco was quietly converted to a battered women's shelter. If you have to take a firehouse out of commission, at least turning it into a shelter keeps the building's function in the realm of public service. But that type of firehouse conversion is not the norm here. I was dismayed to read a profile in the San Francisco Chronicle today of a converted firehouse in San Francisco that has been recently renovated into two multi-million-dollar townhouses.

Real estate in the Bay Area has become much more valuable over the past few decades, while California's Proposition 13, passed in 1978, continues to limit the amount of property taxes that can be collected from these properties. Property taxes help pay for emergency services, among other things, and without adequate funds, many smaller fire stations have closed - and often renovated into luxury properties. Currently, 51 fire stations in San Francisco serve a population of roughly 815,000 people.

San Francisco was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906, and the fire did far more damage than the earthquake. Fire returned after 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake, fueled by a broken gas line, destroying parts of San Francisco's Marina District. This video compilation from the San Francisco Chronicle shows some of the extensive damage caused by the 1989 earthquake, such as the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge:

There is no large earthquake here without a fire, it seems, and many people wonder how well the fire department could handle another earthquake. To help bridge this gap, the San Francisco Fire Department now trains citizen groups in basic disaster skills, including rescue and disaster medicine. Because if you need fire fighters or paramedics, it's no use banging on the door of a townhouse that contains a fire station's original fire pole but cannot help anyone in need.

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