PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) - Portland Fire & Rescue responds to fires that start in homeless encampments often several times a day, according to data.
Some have been as small as a garbage fire, while others have been known to spread to homes.
“Our call volume does have an increased amount that is a result of some kind of emergency or crisis that is happening with our homeless population,” said Lt. Rich Chatman with Portland Fire & Rescue. “That’s a fact of life and we’ve just really come to understand that this is part of our job now.”
The FOX 12 Investigators requested data for fires started in homeless encampments from July 2017 to July 2019.
It showed Portland Fire & Rescue responded to more than 1,000 fires in those two years. It also showed they’re usually responding to these fires several times a day.
Take May 29 of this year: Data shows Portland crews responded to 10 fire calls at homeless camps.
“During our summer months, we know that fires we’re going to deal with often have to do with how dry the brush or trees are and that’s especially concerning to us because those fires that start maybe from a cooking fire or some sorts outdoors that can cause a much larger fire that can affect many more homes,” said Chatman. “During the winter months, often times, the fires are people just trying to keep warm and that’s something we obviously have compassion to.”
Back in July, a homeless camp caught fire near Southeast 96th Avenue and Steele Street. It spread across the street to a home, burning part of the roof.
“Something in the camp exploded,” said Joanna Hartvickson.
Hartvickson lives next door to the home that caught fire.
“Mostly, we were just concerned about our neighbors,” she said. “They’re a retired elderly couple and we were of course concerned about them.”
No one was hurt in the fire.
“Obviously, there’s significant damage to their home, but it could’ve been much worse,” said Hartvickson.
As for how often Portland Fire & Rescue responds to calls like this one, Hartvickson said she’s not surprised.
“It’s not the first homeless fire that I’ve seen in our area, even,” she said.
The Fox 12 Investigators asked Portland Fire & Rescue if they’re alarmed by the amount of these fires or see it as a problem.
“At the end of the day, this is part of our population and so I’m not really sure that it would be fair to say that there is an abnormal amount of fires happening because of that, because ultimately this is part of our population and we know that fires happen whether we’re cooking or we’re trying to keep ourselves warm or any of that stuff,” said Chatman.
At the beginning of this year, Portland Fire started designating every fire on a report as either homeless or not homeless.
Chatman told FOX 12 they did this so they can know exactly how many of their calls are homeless-related. In return, he said they can look at trends and then educate people on how to stay warm and cook food without causing fires.
Portland Fire & Rescue said their highest call volume is still medical calls.
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