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Fires at Vancouver homeless camps put a strain on first responders

Many of the fires are being lit near the former Joe’s Crab Shack along the Columbia River just east of Interstate 5, and it’s affecting nearby businesses.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Fires at homeless camps in Vancouver are on the rise, putting a strain on first responders.

Many of the fires are being lit near the former Joe’s Crab Shack along the Columbia River just east of Interstate 5, and it’s affecting nearby businesses.

“With the homeless population going up, I just feel like it’s something that’s been happening more,” said Audri Renteria, a manger at Who Song & Larry’s. She has seen fires at these camps near the restaurant and reported them to 911.

“When it comes to the restaurant, we have big gas lines and the last thing we need is for all of our people here to be in danger,” she said.

Renteria said storage sheds behind the restaurant were also set on fire.

“That was literally right adjacent to a cage of propanes for our heaters,” she said.

RELATED: Vancouver opens second Safe Stay Community for the homeless

Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli believes the uptick in fires is a direct response to people trying to keep warm. However, those responsible tend to leave the camps before investigators arrive.

“It’s just been problematic to find individuals that are lighting these types of fires in our city,” said Scarpelli.

Many of the fires have been in a tunnel near a wooden pier next to Joe’s Crab Shack. The city put up a metal gate, but people have broken through it and continued lighting fires.

“It’s really dangerous to first responders to get down into that area. It’s extremely steep the river’s high. It’s just really dangerous,” Scarpelli said.

RELATED: 3 people burned by 'warming fires' in Portland

She added that as the summer approaches and the land becomes dry, firefighters worry the fires could spread.

“It becomes very dangerous to have these kinds of unauthorized fires in our community," Scarpelli said. 

“It’s unfortunate that we are experiencing an uptick in these fires, but the public can still expect us to respond and keep the community safe,” added Laura Shepard, communications director for the city of Vancouver. 

The fire marshal is asking the public to call the Vancouver Fire Department’s nonemergency number if any small fires are spotted at homeless camps.

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