Kindly Refrain From Incinerating Bernal Hill on July Fourth (and Help Clean Up Afterward)


Neighbor Sarah, your intrepid public safety correspondent, has a humble request for all Citizens of Bernalwood during the upcoming July Fourth holiday: Please do not turn Bernal Hill into a blazing inferno.

Neighbor Sarah explains:

It’s that time of year again – time for most of us to celebrate freedom, the Declaration of Independence, and the birth of our nation. It’s also time when some damage property and endanger people by setting off illegal fireworks and leaving lots of garbage behind. As we prepare for July 4, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Do not set off fireworks. Definitely don’t set them off on Bernal Hill, which is covered in dry grasses and brush. You may recall that last year, some moron set the Hill on fire. Luckily, no one was hurt, but imagine if this had happened in an area crowded with people watching the downtown fireworks display. If you remember no other item on this list, remember this one. No. Fireworks. On. Bernal. Hill.

2. If you see someone setting off illegal fireworks on Bernal Hill, call the police. Dial 553-0123 if nothing is on fire yet. Dial 911 or 553-8090 if there is an active blaze. The Ingleside Station will dedicate a patrol car to Bernal Heights Blvd. and Bernal Hill this year. Also, whereas in the past I’ve gotten the vibe that dispatch doesn’t want to hear about every illegal fireworks display in SF because there’s simply no way to respond to them all, Capt. Falvey assures me that they DO want to know about the more dramatic displays (ie, the ones that go high into the air and explode) from people’s back yards, because the embers can land on roofs. Again, call 553-0123 if you see one, and call 911 if it actually sets off a fire.

3. Help clean up Bernal Hill the morning after! Last year, the Hill was a wreck. It was covered with garbage, broken bottles, etc. It may be even worse this year, since the 4th is on a Friday, which might attract a larger crowd. Join Bernal neighbors at 10am on July 5 to clean up. Meet near the south gate at the bulletin board (Geo-Reminder: the south side is the side closest to Anderson St.). We’ll have bags and latex gloves, but bring work gloves if you have/want them. Bring full bags back to the garbage area on that side when you’re done. DPW will do an extra pickup that day. Questions? Email:

PHOTOS: Fire on Bernal Hill, July 4, 2013, by Neighbor Bernard

29 thoughts on “Kindly Refrain From Incinerating Bernal Hill on July Fourth (and Help Clean Up Afterward)

  1. I called non-emergency(553.0123) about some airborne fireworks at 9:30p last week and they didn’t respond until 2:30 am with a heart attack inducing phone call. The dispatcher seemed annoyed when I initially called them, so I remarked that I was just trying keep the neighborhood from burning down. I guess they have their hands full.

    • No they don’t have their hands full. The Ingleside non emergency line is covered by some excellent staff but also by some real jerks. If you’re in any way dissatisfied with the response immediately ask to speak with the shift Lt and get it addressed then and there.

      • I wish I’d known this option. I recently had to call and was SHOCKED at how much an asshole the guy on the other end was. Truly an unprofessional, hostile man. This was also after holding for 5 minutes and getting a shrieking recording that sounded like an old fax machine.They’ve gotta figure something else out at Ingleside….

  2. I’m a little surprised the City hasn’t made any efforts to clear some of the dry grass on the hill. Whether it is fireworks or just a stray cigarette, that hill is ready to become a match stick.

    • I appreciate your sentiment and good intentions here. It is a common question that deserves an answer.

      Here is the challenge (and it’s a tough one): How do you make an open field fireproof?

      Can you clear dry grass? Not really, unless you dig up the entire area. Even then, something will grow back.

      Can you keep the field irrigated so it remains green and marginally less flammable? Yes. But that encourages rapid, massive growth of the plant cover, creating a much larger fire load.

      This is one of those situations where the only solution is for us to take care of each other. Act responsibly. Keep sparks and flame away from vegetation. Try to prevent accidents. Be prepared for emergencies. The SFFD has an excellent N.E.R.T. (Neighborhood Emergency Response Training) program open to anyone who is interested.

  3. Yes one would think the City would do a controlled burn as a precaution.
    Thanks to Sarah & Todd for trying to keep our community safe on this 4th.

    • Yes, thanks to them for raising awareness.

      And thank you for raising a legitimate concern. Bernal Hill regularly endures 40+ mph winds and is surrounded by densely packed wooden houses. There can be no such thing as a controlled burn in those conditions. Imagine: an ember floats to a nearby roof, which ignites hours later when the occupants are sleeping…

      Prevention and vigilance.

  4. A decade ago when working at The Crucible, we never did anything with fire that didn’t involve a 20+ page fire safety plan. I would encourage neighbors who are walking up the hill to bring along a small extinguisher in a back pack just in case. I know its a pain, but think of it like have CPR training. Calling 911 is not going to be as fast as trying to put a fire out before a blaze gets going.

    • (I hope all my replies don’t come across like a sermon. This is such an important issue in SF.)

      designgeek, you seem to have good intentions. But your last sentence is exactly wrong. It expresses a common and dangerous misconception which actually affects dozens of San Franciscans every year.

      Never hesitate– even for a second– to call 911. Make the call FIRST.

      Then, if you put the fire out before the Fire Engines arrive, you have still helped the community. Call 911 again and say the fire’s out. The Engine will come and verify the extinguished fire. It costs nothing, you’ll probably get an “attaboy,” and everybody wins. This happens hundreds of times a year in SF.

      Alternate outcome: You don’t call 911. Maybe you are fortunate, and are able to extinguish the fire yourself. It is unknowable how often this happens.

      But dozens of times a year, well-intentioned, decent people like yourself, who have the same simple misconception, suffer cruel and permanent loss because of it (usually in structure fires, but the same idea applies*). They don’t call first. The fire has been burning for a minute and begins to spread surprisingly fast. The minute that passes before the panic hits and they fumble to make the call is added to the minute it takes the operator to gather the information and dispatch the rigs. The crews are out the door in a minute. Add the 4 minutes it takes the Fire Engines to drive to the incident because there’s never traffic in the City. No Recology truck blocking a narrow street. No illegally parked cars or Muni coaches detached from the overhead wires. The address is accurate. Even in this perfect scenario the fire burns for 8 minutes before crews go on scene.

      Ask your neighbors on Ellsworth how far a grass fire can spread in 8 minutes. Calling 90 seconds earlier makes a HUGE difference. (If you have to, pick up an extinguisher while you’re on the phone, but AFTER you dial the number.)


      * Almost all fires in the City are structure fires. People are horribly injured or killed in structure fires, which makes delaying the call to 911 astronomically more dangerous.

  5. I am nervous, with all the reduced watering now going on—how best to prepare for fireworks at our homes? I haven’t watered what small lawn I once had in months and it is mostly dry grass now. I know the chance a stray firework will end up in the yard is pretty slim, but it’s possible (especially in Bernal or the Mission where fireworks have already been going off with a frequency).

    In all seriousness, is it smart to give the lawn a safety wetting before the big night? Anything else we should do to prepare?

    • Wouldn’t hurt to give it a good dousing at sunset. If you can get up on your roof, I’d sweep all the pine needles or dead palm leaves or whatever debris might collect up there off as well. If you can’t, makin’ it rain with the hose a few minutes isn’t the worst idea.

      • Thanks Doug! It felt weird to water an almost completely dead lawn, but after the explosions started in the street, it surely eased my mind. Didn’t make it up on the roof, but the wind whips through this street with gusto most days and so I figure most of the loose debris has been dislodged anyhow.

        Hope everyone had a safe, fun Fourth. Thanks for all the community discussion and concern.

  6. SHEEP and GOATS — I’m surprised the city hasn’t brought in a shepherd with critters to eat down the grass. This is what they do in the Berkeley, Oakland, and Hayward hills.

    • Surprised as well. I’ve seen them in Dolores park in years past. I’d prefer this to a controlled burn, since those have a rare but very real tendency of becoming uncontrolled burns.


    I urge you to delete the 553 number in the post. Dialing any number other than 911 when there is a fire will cause a delay, and is therefore a terrible mistake.

    • and if I dial 911 from my only phone which is a cel phone? Do I get connected to SF emergency or CHP?

      • SFPD Direct emergency number is: 415-663-8090. This goes directly to SFPD’s 911 dispatch so you’re sure you’re getting the right PD even if your cell phone is connecting to a site in Daly City, Sausalito, or Emeryville (as can happen when you’re on the fringes of the city).

        BEFORE YOU FORGET, add it to your phone’s address book right now!

    • After this, I give up. The 911 education campaign has clearly failed.

      For the record:

      If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 no matter what device you are using. That is the quickest and best way to receive an appropriate emergency response, according to the engineers, designers, policy makers, call takers, responders and public relations officers (who have obviously been on vacation) of the emergency communication system.

      Of the hundred reasons I could cite, I threw a dart and hit this one: when you call 911, your call MUST be answered. The MANDATED goal at every step is the elimination of delays. If you call “the” private number (surprise! there are hundreds) for the ECD , there is no requirement that your call even be answered, no urgency, no dedicated operator. That’s why they are called Non-Emergency Numbers.

      So you can follow the advice of the emergency system itself. Or you can follow the advice of someone who posted on the interwebs. (That includes me, so no offense intended).

      • Bajato, calling 911 from a cell phone continues to be an issue when you’re near a freeway – you get connected to CHP in Vallejo instead of SF 911. I have heard a half-dozen times that this issue has been fixed; it has not, based on the accounts of many people I have heard raise the issue at community and police meetings. I experienced it first-hand when trying to call 911 about an extremely agitated man near Costco (which is near the freeway) about two months ago. The call went to Vallejo (CHP); there was a delay in connecting; then, after I was connected, I explained the situation; they then (after a delay) connected me to SF 911 dispatch, where I had to explain it again. Talk about time being wasted! The guy had wandered into traffic on 10th St. by this point. 553-8090 is an EMERGENCY number that connects you directly to SF emergency. 553-0123 is the non-emergency number.

      • SARAH: EXACTLY! This is why it’s so important for people to put 415-553-8090 into their phone address book.

        The PSAP system tries its best to figure out where the cell phone is in relation to cities, but it’s not foolproof, given the capriciousness of UHF signals. If you’re near a freeway, the PSAP will divert to CHP, based on the cell site that was hit and the GPS built into all modern (post-2001) cell phones. Given that Bernal Hill is not far from the 101 and 280 freeways, it wouldn’t be unusual at all to reach the CHP instead of the SF 911 center at Hayward Playground.

        From the SFPD website:

        ” Life Threatening Emergencies or Crimes in Progress 911 (within San Francisco)
        The purpose of San Francisco’s 911 Emergency Telephone System is to provide for the immediate response of police, fire, or medical personnel for emergency occurrences. To accomplish this, it is imperative that the calls received on 911 lines be restricted to those situations that require immediate dispatching of Police, Paramedic, or Fire Department personnel.
        Note: When calling 911 on a cellular phone near a highway, the call is connected to The California Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatch center. In other areas in San Francisco, the call will connect directly to SF dispatch. You can also dial directly to SF dispatch: 415-553-8090 “

      • I wish I had kept my mouth shut. The questions and comments can be short, but an adequate answer can only be long, tedious, and–based on this discussion–unlikely to convince someone who believes their method is better than the one universally recognized as best.

        Respectfully: Dial whichever number you want. I honestly hope it always works out for you. It probably will.

        (The following is going to sound obnoxious and I don’t know how to fix it.) I’m familiar with the system. I know by heart direct extensions that aren’t made public. The 4 or 5 times I’ve had to call and report emergencies, all from a cell phone, at least two from a freeway, I called 911. I wish it were possible to just say “Trust me.” Or “Take my word for it.” Or any of those phrases that are so annoying when someone says them to me. 🙂

        Sarah, you obviously care, and took the time to raise reasonable points, maybe if I break down just the first one, you might trust that the others are answerable also?

        The CHP thing doesn’t need to be “fixed.” When your calls go to CHP dispatch that is the system working as intended. Working properly.

        To anticipate your reply: If someone said “fixed” to you, it was shorthand for: “Is this a perfect system? No, because the hellscape of competing cell phone technologies has yet to be tamed. But it has been, and will continue to be IMPROVED. Meanwhile smart and invested people have made sure that this is the most efficient way to deal with cellular technology’s inherently unhelpful emergency reporting capabilities.”

        Please remember your call is one of thousands that must be triaged. Is your man in the street more important than the 3 year old choking on a hot dog? And CHP has to hear your story to know it is legit because of crank calls and lunatics who dial 911 compulsively and on and on. Then SF has to have the info because…. on and on. Also, please remember the call takers are people. And they are bombarded by misery and trauma and unfathomable sadness every work day, all day long. They rarely last more than a few years. It is thankless torture and the only feedback consists of complaints. I couldn’t do it.

        David, I don’t know what to say. Please just think about it for a minute. What happens when 2 people call your 553 number at the same time? What happens when there is a major incident and whoever usually answers that number is not available? 911 is always answered and has gigantic capacity. Even on your website, 553 is the “also” number.

        But do what you think best. If you have kids, please teach them 911 until they are old enough to also know better than everyone else. 🙂

        NOW, I give up.

      • The 911 number and the 415-553-8090 number are the SAME THING. The 911 number is aliased to the phone bank that handles 415*-553-8090. The difference is that when you dial 415-553-8090 you are DEFINITELY calling the SF DEM at 1011 Turk Street (Hayward Playground). If you call 911 and you’re near a freeway (Bernal Hill is new two freeways) you may or may not get the DEM center.

      • David, they are not the same thing. I say this calmly and with no antagonism: You just don’t know what you are talking about.

        The DEM is the Department of Emergency Management, the larger agency within which the Turk St. communications center operates. The building is not the “DEM Center.” I don’t know if civilians are allowed to take a tour. But a couple of my coworkers are currently assigned there. I’d be happy to ask. It is a very impressive operation and might or might not help clarify things for you.

        This is becoming silly. My only concern is that someone might read your words, believe them and have a bad outcome.

        Maybe this will help me extract myself from this loop:

        You are right. I am wrong. I apologize for contradicting you. Good luck and be safe!


        Can a person UNsubscribe from follow-up comment notifications?

      • OK, I’ve submitted the question to a panel of experts in telecom, and hopefully people who know SF’s emergency system intimately. I expect an answer within a day or two.

      • FIRST ANSWER I’ve gotten back is that the 911 calls within SF and the 415-553-8090 do go to EXACTLY the same place, the dispatch center. I’m waiting for an actual routing schematic. Meanwhile, I was directed to look at this statement from the SFPD on their web page:

        “When calling 911 on a cellular phone near a highway, the call is connected to The California Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatch center. In other areas in San Francisco, the call will connect directly to SF dispatch. You can also dial directly to SF dispatch:

  8. Last night, I tried to reason with our neighbors who insisted that they had to light off fireworks on the side of our house. “They’re the legal kind – I don’t understand what your problem is?!” Here’s my problem – we’re in the middle of a major drought and not only are the houses packed together, there’s a ton of dry tinder laying around right where you’re shooting off the fireworks. One wayward spark and half the neighborhood is going to catch on fire. If you’re going to light off the fireworks, please at least have a fire extinguisher nearby and try to respect that some of us really like our homes and aren’t out to ruin your fun, but just need you to be a little more aware of why we’re concerned.

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