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60 Evacuated in San Francisco Fire

SAN FRANCISCO -- A fast-moving fire that began in a Mission District apartment building spread to an adjoining building and prompted the evacuation of nearly an entire San Francisco block Monday night.

The four-alarm blaze on Valencia Street between 25th and 26th streets burned for nearly two hours, displacing at least 59 people from their homes.

The fire began at 1470 Valencia St., a four-story apartment building, at around 5:45 p.m.

"I heard this popping noise," said Mark Schiffner, who lived in a 25-unit building next door to 1470. When he looked, "the flames were already coming into our building. I ran out. I didn't grab a thing."

His apartment building at 1476 Valencia was also ravaged by the fire.

"I've got my wallet and I've got my keys, but the keys are useless," he said. "I survived, but had this happened in the middle of the night, I'd probably be dead."

The fire began with flames whipping out of the back windows of 1470 Valencia - the back of the building facing Poplar Street. The flames leaped into the upper floors of 1476 Valencia, another four-story apartment building. Firefighters arrived and began helping people out of the burning buildings.

A few doors away, at the corner of Valencia and 26th streets, the popular Dovre Club was packed with St. Patrick's Day revelers who continued celebrating as if nothing was amiss.

By 6:30 p.m., however, the Fire Department evacuated the Dovre Club and other buildings on the block between 25th and 26th streets out of safety concerns.

People scrambled outside with whatever they could grab. Some stood on streets with birdcages.

Kathleen Lawton, who lives on nearby South Van Ness, couldn't believe how rapidly the fire moved.

"I've never seen anything spread so fast," she said. "I saw just a little bit of smoke and then it just went up."

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said 130 firefighters were called to the scene - and one was sent to the hospital as a result of smoke inhalation. At least one other person, a woman who appeared conscious and alert, was loaded into an ambulance at the scene.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Hayes-White cited the density of buildings and their materials for why the fire was so fast and big.

"The challenge we face is the wood frame construction," said Hayes-White. "It burns hot and fast."

She said that the common walls of buildings were also a factor in how quickly the fire spread to the other building.

The most intense flames appeared to be on Poplar Street, which runs parallel to Valencia Street and behind the buildings.

When the fire first began, the flames and heavy smoke poured out from the back of 1470 Valencia - onto Poplar. But fire trucks pulled up in front of Valencia. One eventually pulled into Poplar.

At 7:30 p.m., firefighters got the fire under control and hundreds of spectators gathered nearby on the streets cheered.

Two cats were killed in the fire, but firefighters rescued two other cats and a couple of pet rats.

American Red Cross Bay Area spokeswoman Melanie Sanders said a temporary shelter has been set up in the Mission District for people displaced by the fire.

She said the number of displaced residents may rise.

"It could be more than that as folks return home this evening and discover what happened," she said.

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