Construction workers are anxious and investigators are puzzled. Someone has been sending San Francisco's portable toilets up in flames in a wave of potty pyromania.
"It's an outrage," said Scott Johnson, a 57-year-old contractor who has been working on apartment building renovations on Russian Hill, the elegant neighborhood that is home to famously crooked Lombard Street and has had most of the fires.
Since November, at least 20 of the ubiquitous construction site toilets have been set afire in the city, creating a trail of malodorous wreckage and causing an estimated $50,000 in property damage, according to fire officials.
Investigators have little to go on. Most of the fires have been set at night, although one portable potty burst into flames during a recent afternoon.
"Somebody's getting very bold," said Fire Department Lt. Mindy Talmadge. It's not unheard of for vandals to strike the portable restrooms but "this is unusual," she said.
Contractors have been trying to foil the attacks by securing or camouflaging their industrial outhouses. A walk around Russian Hill last week found almost none of the familiar bright blue toilets, save for one lashed to a large metal trash bin and another tucked discreetly behind folds of black material.
Theories vary on who is responsible.
"Kids would be my guess," said Johnson.
Alex Rodriguez, president of Concord-based Far West Sanitation & Storage Containers, thinks whoever is doing it is motivated by the thrill of lawlessness, "trying to play catch-and-seek with the police." His company has lost a couple of units to the restroom arson.
The loss of a portable toilet can amount to several hundred dollars.
Plus, there is the unenviable job of cleaning up a disgusting mess, and there is the threat that a fire could spread.
"It kind of worries me and worries everybody that I talk to," Rodriguez said. "These people, I don't think they're criminals, but they are kind of out of their minds to do that."