‘Several factors’ cited for increase in homeless tent fires

Multnomah County

PF&R data shows dramatic increase in homeless camp fires

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — “The problem is when you’re living in a tent everything around you is flammable.”

Portland Fire & Rescue’s Rob Garrison told KOIN 6 News there have been so many tent fires in Portland this year they’ve changed the way they document the data.

“We created a tab for the officers to check to say this was a houseless fire, so that’s when we actually started tracking it specifically,” Garrison said. “Before you’d have to dig in to the call, look at what it was, go to the comment section, say, OK, this was a tent or whatever it was.”

The latest data was updated in Spring 2021. There were 99 homeless fires in May 2020, while this year there were 139. In April of this year, homeless-related fires nearly tripled from the year before.

“There’s several factors involved, but I mean, obviously we’ve seen a lot more camps popping up over the last couple of years, you know, whether that’s due to COVID or other related issues,” he said.

More camps mean more trash. When that trash isn’t cleaned up the fire hazard is even greater, he said.

A tent pitched outside of the Portland Korean Church in downtown Portland went up in flames Wednesday night.

“Sometimes these are old camps that never got cleaned up and there’s just a massive pile of trash laying around.”

He said 3 people have died during homeless camp fires so far this year. Garrison recalled a camp fire in 2020 that took the lives of 2 people.

“There was a male and female and it was caused by a candle. And by the time they woke up, the whole thing was on fire and the female ended up passing away,” he said.

Many times firefighters have no way of knowing exactly what caused a homeless fire.

“If we arrive on scene everything’s burned out,” Garrison said. “There’s no witnesses around. There’s multiple sources of ignition.”

PF&R is doing its best to educate people living in tents or homeless campsites about the risks, including one-on-one education.

“Our crews go on a lot of medical calls and they go on other types of calls at these camps and when we see hazards, we’re trying to educate them, you know, tell them, hey, larger amounts of propane, not a good idea, you know, flammable, liquids, candles, all of that stuff,” he said.

Garrison added PF&R Chief Sara Boone is currently putting together public service announcements to get information out about the fire danger at these camps.

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