Fire tears through Vancouver homeless camp; neighbors frustrated, they say

Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 6:21 PM PST
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VANCOUVER Ore. (KPTV) - Early Friday morning a fire at a homeless encampment tore through tents and make-shift shelters, but those who work and live nearby said the fire is just a symbol of years of problems.

Vancouver firefighters responded to the encampment built on property near Northeast 53rd Street and 107th Avenue around 2 a.m. Friday. It took 14 firefighters more than two hours to finally put the blaze out. One person living in the camp was treated for minor burns on the scene and released. Josie Ells owns a business next to where the fire broke out. An employee took a video of flames racing up trees and an orange glow lighting up the night. She said this isn’t the first fire at this camp.

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“We’ve had many fires here, during the summertime we had generators explode,” Ells said. “Every person that was in the office got the hose and started hosing moving cars and hosing down the property line.”

She said Friday morning’s fire is just one example of what those who live and work in the area say is an underlying problem they’ve been dealing with for years.

“These are not the normal homeless population,” Ells said. “These are people who have been breaking into vehicles, you can see the stolen property they bring in all the time, constant fighting, constant arguing, I’m always cleaning up needles and drug paraphernalia from the front of my property. It’s been terrifying.”

Other businesses FOX 12 spoke to off camera said employees have been threatened with weapons and shoplifting is adding up to thousands of dollars in lost profit. Many of them said they’ve asked the land owner, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), to clear the property but the businesses claim nothing’s been done.

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A spokesperson for WSDOT sent FOX 12 this statement in response to the fire and concerns of surrounding businesses:

“WSDOT staff and crews were present on-site today following the fire event. Crews are installing temporary fencing around the site and will continue to clear debris next week. The City of Vancouver is working with individuals who are sheltered at this location to find housing alternatives, as they have access to resources needed to provide a pathway to temporary and permanent housing.

“WSDOT has been involved with this encampment located at 107th Avenue and 53rd Street in Vancouver, north of State Route 500, and working closely with the City of Vancouver. As businesses reach out to WSDOT, we’ve kept them updated on the status of the site and will continue to do so.

“The property is up for sale. Due to many variables related to the sale of the surplus property, it is too soon to say when the sale might occur. Potential buyers are aware that WSDOT will transfer the land cleared of anyone living on the site, their campsites, and debris.

“Homelessness is a complex issue with no easy solutions that require a coordinated approach for the safety of those who are in need, nearby residents, the traveling public, and our workers who must access sites for inspections and repairs. In addition, access to resources that can make a difference is key in outreach to people living on the right of ways or roadsides. We work closely with local partners, who have access to the resources and human services required to provide a pathway to temporary and permanent housing – because housing is the key issue in resolving this challenge for all involved. There are four actions that allow encampments to be removed from WSDOT right of way:

  1. The offering of shelter and services to people living there
  2. Storage of their belongings
  3. Safety and security for people on-site and work crews
  4. Restoration and cleanup of the property

“WSDOT’s responsibility and expertise are limited to the last action, the clean-up of right of way.

“Following today’s fire, WSDOT is currently securing the site and keeping it vacant with the intent to proceed with a sale.”

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Ells said many of her drivers, herself and her dispatcher have all been homeless at one point.

“So we all of us understand losing your job suddenly and all of a sudden you’re not able to afford,” Ells said. “We all have compassion for it.”

Even so, Ells says compassion can’t get in the way of following the law.

“We need to start enforcing the laws, they’re on the books several laws that you see are being broken out here all the time, city ordinances that are being broken someone has to start doing something,” Ells said. “This is above and beyond what is deemed acceptable.”