Portland firefighters fear homeless camp fires will spike in winter

The danger of homeless camp fires increases during the winter.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- As winter approaches and temperatures drop, Portland firefighters are turning their attention to the city’s homeless camps and campers’ increased usage of fires, candles and small stoves to stay warm.

All of those, said officials Wednesday, are tactics that have proven dangerous in the past.

“There’s a very limited way to cook food and stay warm when you’re out on the street,” said Captain Louisa Jones. “Something as simple as a hibachi stove, having conventional fuel for that 
may be difficult so they’re oftentimes collecting trash and just other things that they can find in the area that will burn that are accessible to them. Doing that definitely exposes them to a higher risk of fires that are unpredictable.”

And new numbers, first requested by the Portland Mercury and confirmed by KGW Wednesday, show just how prevalent the issue is year-round.

Between Sept. 1, 2016 and Aug. 31, 2017, Portland Fire & Rescue responded to 218 “homeless-related” fires, which resulted in a total $1.3 million in damaged or destroyed property.

$900,000 of that came from one fire in particular, which started in a dumpster and spread to Southwest Portland’s International School next door.

Captain Jones said Wednesday the homeless crisis’ impact on the Bureau’s operations stretches beyond fire-specific call.

“In the last year we've responded to just under 5,000 incidents involving the homeless,” she said. “And that includes medical calls, any type of calls for service… The mayor's office has asked all city bureaus make addressing the homeless problem a priority.”

Captain Jones added firefighters are encouraged to see education efforts seem to be sinking in for many campers.

She said they’ve noticed some making more efforts to keep fires away from their tents and other flammable materials. They also keep buckets of water, dirt or sand on hand to put out fires in case of an emergency.

Sherri, who camps downtown near Portland’s waterfront, said even when those extra steps are taken, campers still make mistakes.

And winter, she added, is the worst time.

“People use candles… to heat their places and then they fall asleep,” she said. “And you know whether someone's intoxicated or not, they don't intend to fall asleep. It used to be with cigarettes but, you know, out here, yeah. People do burn up in fires.”

© 2017 KGW-TV


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