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Vancouver clears homeless camps at risk of spreading fire

In response to a new ordinance, Vancouver city staff are moving people out and cleaning up homeless camps in areas at risk for wildfires.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — The City of Vancouver has begun cleaning up homeless camps and ordering residents to move out in areas that are considered at risk for wildfires. It's the first round of enforcement under a new city ordinance aimed at ending homeless camping in public places that could quickly burn.

"This is quite dangerous during fire season," said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator. "It's very dangerous if someone gets caught in a wildfire and then fire trucks can't get here there's no water access."

Starting early Wednesday morning to beat the heat, cleanup crews began work just outside Leverich Park, with a camp cleanup on the hillside near the entrance. They then worked their way into the park and onto the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail.

There was plenty to clean up, but most of the homeless camps in the area were already empty of people, including one camp just off the beaten path. It burned earlier in the season, but fortunately the fire didn't spread.

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"This is an area that's been burned out, and so we're going to go ahead and get rid of all the debris that was left behind," said Sheila Andrews, encampment response coordinator for Vancouver.

Homeless residents from this camp and others got regular visits from Andrews over the past few months to help them prepare for this day.

"So they've known for some time," she said. "I bring out Council for the Homeless, I bring out every other outreach organization I can, to meet with everybody to get their needs met to move forward."

With many of the roughly 35 former campers from this area now in better situations, a contracted cleanup crew from Rapid Response Bio-Clean came in and helped city workers reclaim the land along the popular greenway.

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The new city ordinance to block camping is meant to stop situations like a fire that broke out at a large homeless encampment just north of city limits a month ago. The fire injured one person and Clark County Fire District 6 had a challenge stopping it from spreading into the surrounding brush and trees.

Back near Leverich Park, a lone Vancouver police officer helped out in what proved to be a low security risk cleanup. Spinelli said the clean up will make the public space better for everybody.

"We've done everything that we can to make sure people have alternatives, but the reality is this place is just ripe for a wildfire and you know, people trying to stay warm at night or just cook their food will use fire," Spinelli said. "And sometimes that gets out of control, especially in dry environments like this."

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