More fires from homeless camps feared as Colorado Springs shelters hit capacity

By  | 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (The Gazette) - Grass and brush fires caused by homeless campers in Colorado Springs have grown more than threefold since 2014, and the danger shows no sign of abating.

The number of fires that originated from homeless camps jumped from 26 in 2014 to 94 last year, according to the Colorado Springs Fire Department. This year is on pace to be just as busy for firefighters scrambling to protect houses and businesses bordering creeksides and vacant land across the city.

Colorado Springs police say the rise highlights a predicament: With shelter space at a premium and temperatures dropping, people experiencing homelessness must either risk accidentally setting a fire trying to stay warm, or the possibility of frostbite and hypothermia.

"The problem we're seeing right now is the shelters are basically full," said Sgt. Curt Hasling, who leads the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team. "These people have a right to stay warm."

When fires get out of control, they put lives and property at risk. In April 2017, a homeless camper was critically injured by a fire he started, KRDO News 13 reported. Weeks earlier, The Broadmoor Community Church was damaged by a fire that a homeless man had set to stay warm.

Campfires have not yet caused a major fire. But Colorado Springs' history of wildland fires gives reason for caution.

"Any unattended campfire can grow large," said Capt. Steve Wilch, Colorado Springs Fire Department spokesman.

Fire investigators say determining whether homeless campers caused any particular brush fire can be difficult. Telltale signs, such as a campsite where a fire began, can lend a solid clue. But in other instances, investigators say they struggle to determine whether a blaze started from a homeless person cooking dinner along the side of a road, or a driver idly flicking a cigarette from a passing vehicle.

Even when campsites are found inside a burned area, investigators can't determine if the camp was the cause of the fire or a casualty.

Fire investigators suspect 26 grass or brush fires in 2014 stemmed from homeless campsites when flames spread out of control. That figure grew to 44 in 2015 and 94 in 2016.

So far this year, 89 fires have been attributed to homeless campsites through Dec. 1.

The actual number may be far greater, Wilch said.

In 2016, investigators found the remains of camps in 161 fires. While 94 of those were "very likely" caused by the camps, investigators could not be sure about the remainder. The true number is likely somewhere in between.

"Are we seeing this as a chronic problem? Yes," said Wilch. "We're going to see this continue."

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers are finding it difficult to balance the survival needs of people living outdoors while mitigating fire hazard.

The Salvation Army's shelter, which requires visitors be sober, often has dozens of beds free every night. But the Springs Rescue Mission's larger, low-barrier shelter - which admits people based on behavior, not sobriety - is often full.

"There's not a lack of demand, just a lack of capacity," said Trig Bundgaard, executive co-director of the Coalition for Compassion and Action.

Bundgaard is helping lead an emergency shelter task force seeking to increase bed space for the winter months. But, he said providing housing for everyone is a long shot.

In the meantime, another organization, Blackbird Outreach, has begun providing safe gas heating - clean burning stoves with guards to prevent tipping - for 20 people at $100 per person per month. The number falls well short of the hundreds Bundgaard estimates are living outside in Colorado Springs.

Camp-caused fires endanger lives and property, but, Bundgaard said, "blaming the people that are just trying to stay warm with no safe heating is counterproductive."

In trying to avoid detection from police officers, people experiencing homelessness move their camps from parks to less maintained open spaces with greater fire hazards and no legal fire pits.

Hasling said police do not hand out tickets for illegally camping when no shelter beds are available. When it comes to fires, police give tickets when members of his team see someone "stoking the fire."

"Those are the tickets we cite automatically," Hasling said. "The ones we see."

Between January and May of 2017, his officers put out 25 fires and issued three citations.