PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Numerous times over the past month Portland firefighters have had to put out fires from homeless camps underneath bridges.
Monday morning a tent caught on fire underneath the Broadway Bridge. A few days ago Portland Fire & Rescue battled a large blaze from a homeless camp under the Interstate Avenue overpass. Three weeks ago a homeless fire inside a makeshift tunnel under the Steel Bridge forced firefighters to bust holes into the cinderblock walls to rescue someone injured and trapped.
The Interstate Avenue overpass fire was complicated to extinguish because of tall fencing, multiple rail lines and exploding propane canisters.
“It’s essentially like a bomb,” said Isaac McLennan, the president of the Portland Firefighters Association.
PF&R officials said they put out nearly 2000 homeless-related fires last year. Fires at homeless camps made up 41% of all fires in the city in 2022.
“I know it’s taken a toll. I know it’s because we know we’re going on more and more calls each year,” McLennan said. “We’re doing that with the same number of firefighters.”
He said a short-term solution is for the city to maintain firefighter staffing levels.
“The long-term solution is really not camping, like as we see now, people living in tents and people living on the streets in this way,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
Firefighters support the city’s effort for shelters and affordable housing for the homeless to reduce these risks. When there is a life-threatening emergency, McLennan said every minute counts.
He’s concerned about the possibility of losing two dozen firefighter positions in the upcoming Portland budget. Mayor Ted Wheeler will share his proposed budget in May.