PORTLAND, Ore. —
New numbers show just how frequent homeless-related fires are in the city of Portland. Portland Fire and Rescue responded to more than 1,000 fires from July 2016 to July 2019, according to statistics from the department.
KGW dug into those figures as Portland Fire and Rescue continues to investigate what caused a fire at a homeless camp which ignited the roof of a nearby home in Southeast Portland.
It happened Monday evening in the 5300 block of Southeast 96th Avenue. Neighbors say they heard explosions and could see smoke from the other side of the freeway.
“I heard a big boom and when I came out the flames were like 10-15 feet tall and a lot of smoke coming this way,” Corise Lee, who lives on the same block, said.
Portland Fire and Rescue responded to the scene just after 4 p.m. Monday.
They were able to put the fire out at the camp, but less than a half-hour later the roof of a home across the street ignited.
“We looked up and her roof was smoking and flaming,” neighbor Aletha Chavis said.
Fire crews used chainsaws to cut off parts of the roof to make sure it was fully extinguished.
No one was injured in the fire and the residents of the home were able to stay living in their home.
“It was pretty ghastly,” Chavis said.
This is not a new issue for the city of Portland. Numbers show that from July 30, 2016 - July 28, 2019 Portland Fire and Rescue has responded to a total of 1,170 homeless-related fires.
Those numbers include garbage fires, fires caused by squatters, homeless camps and other homeless-related causes.
Homeless-related fires more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. Numbers from 2016-2017 show that there were 231 fires and from 2017-2018 there were 497 fires.
This year those numbers are down, but only slightly. Since July 28, 2018 there have been 442 homeless-related fires in Portland.
From 2016 to 2017 these types of fires resulted in a total $1.3 million in damaged or destroyed property.
In December 2018, a Portland lawyer filed $500,000 lawsuit against the city after a fire in 2016 at a homeless camp seriously damaged her home and business.
Although Portland Fire and Rescue has not determined an official cause of this recent homeless campfire, Lt. Laurent Picard says the number one concern for homeless camp fire safety is propane.
“We're asking the campers to be very careful with propane. Many of them do use propane to cook and that's just the reality of life with this homeless crisis,” he said.
Picard advises those using propane to ensure it is shut off after cooking, keep open flames away, and to have a fire extinguisher whenever possible.
“Also, it can be really dangerous around tents and tarps, because they are petroleum-based products and they can catch on fire very readily,” Picard said.
Picard is also warning homeowners to be vigilant about protecting their homes in dry hot weather.
“An ember is an ember whether it comes from a homeless camp or a backyard BBQ or a fire pit,” he said.
As the weather gets hotter and drier, Portland Fire and Rescue reminds the public to keep all backyard fires in fire pits at least 15 feet from a structure, have a hose available, make sure all fires are fully extinguished, and never burn garbage or anything other than firewood.
Meanwhile, neighbors say they've contacted Portland Police about this camp before, but they do not see camps like this here often.
The camp that sparked the fire Monday had been there for about two weeks with at least two people living there, according to neighbors.
“Scary, because there's a lot of kids here. I have two granddaughters here and so we'd prefer not to have them,” Lee said.
Portland police tell KGW they are providing focused patrols in the area.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Fire officials do not have an estimate on how much the damage done to the home will cost.