Witness turned rescuer in Colorado homeless camp fire

Unofficial evacuation orders were yelled out by those living in the homeless encampment.
Published: Mar. 25, 2023 at 11:01 PM MDT
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PUEBLO, Colo. (KKTV) - The Pueblo Fire Department responded to Fountain Creek near 29th and Dillion Drive around 9:30 Saturday morning.

Crews said the blaze started near a homeless camp and burned about four acres.

Jacob Handler said he was driving by on I-25 with his family when he saw smoke. Feeling compelled, he pulled over and faced the flames himself.

“We were throwing everything we could towards the river, just trying to save stuff and tanks, and yeah, it was like a war zone; not gonna lie, it was like being in combat,” witness and rescuer Jacob Handler said.

Strong wind conditions made fire containment difficult, but crews said they were able to get the fire mostly contained by 1:30 Saturday afternoon.

Evacuations were not ordered for the fire due to the crews’ quick response in helping deter flames from nearby homes. But unofficial evacuations were yelled out by those living in the homeless encampment.

“There was a man who was still in a tent, and they kept yelling for him, and we turned around, and the whole camp was in flames,” Handler said.

Handler told 11 News he estimated about 25 to 30 people were living in the encampment.

His first rescue was a family.

He said the family would not have left if it had not been for him.

“Obviously, they knew the place was on fire, but they didn’t wanna leave,” Handler said. “But I quickly coached them into leaving; as soon as the flames hit the campground, they kind of took off running for shelter, and I navigated them through the smoke carrying some of their things.”

“It just took someone else, you know, outside perspective, to tell them that life is more valuable than that and it’s not worth dying for,” Handler said.

Handler is experiencing homelessness himself and expressed frustration with the lack of care given to this specific community.

“They got to stay warm,” Handler explained. “How else do you expect them to stay warm?”

“There is a part of society that is lacking the proper help and resources to, you know better them from having to live in situations such as that with one of the biggest fire traps you can imagine,” Handler said. “I don’t know why they would just leave them all down there.”

Handler was unsure of how many people made it out of the flames but said he kept returning to keep evacuating person after person.

“By the time we were able to make it back to the tents, everything was in flames,” Handler said. “As far as I can remember, after that, I saw three people come out at least safety out of the smoke.”

There have not been any reported injuries or hospitalizations.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.