Vandals Create a Pungent Problem in San Francisco

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SAN FRANCISCO — A new crime spree is raising a decided stink here.

Nineteen portable toilets have been deliberately set on fire at construction sites since Nov. 6, according to a San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman. No one has been injured, but the breezes blowing in from the Pacific have taken a hit.

“All the plastic was melted down to the floor, and it smelled horrible, horrible, horrible,” said Fermin Jemenez, 35, a house painter who works less than 50 feet from the most recent blaze, which occurred Sunday when a latrine was burned in a neighborhood near Russian Hill.

Mr. Jemenez said he tied a cloth over his face to filter the odor.

At first several privies were hit in Russian Hill, an affluent area with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. But recently adjacent neighborhoods have been victimized. Four days before the most recent attack, a portable toilet on Washington Street in Nob Hill went up in flames. A week before that, it was a blue toilet outside a children’s clothing boutique in Cow Hollow.

The authorities would not say whether they think the crime spree is the work of a single arsonist, or a gang of potty pyromaniacs.

Nineteen portable toilets have been set on fire in San Francisco since Nov. 6. Above, a replacement at the site of a Jan. 9 fire, where melted blue plastic remained on the sidewalk.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

No one has reported seeing fires being set or suspects fleeing, which rankles the police and fire officials.

“It’s a very serious case,” said Mindy Talmadge, the Fire Department spokeswoman. “All intentional fires are serious.”

National Construction Rentals has lost nine portable toilets in the fires, said Gloria Parrales, a company administrator. “People think it’s funny to destroy porta-potties,” she said, but what it really is is costly.

Each scorched toilet costs approximately $2,500 to replace, officials said, and most fires have been fueled by accelerants like propane, though other types have also been used. Some construction companies have begun camouflaging their toilets or moving them to places that are not easily accessible.

Roger Miller recently started a job painting an octagon-shaped house in Cow Hollow. At the request of the Fire Department, Mr. Miller and his colleagues moved their bright blue latrine away from the historic building and anything else that looked flammable. They were also instructed to keep it locked at night.

The burning privies have led to a running joke among the crew, Mr. Miller said. “Every time somebody’s got to go, we yell, ‘Don’t blow it up, man.’ ”



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