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Aug. 16, 2022

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Vancouver fire marshal: Calls to homeless camps are increasing

Officials say old tunnel under pier near former Joe's Crab Shack presents particular dangers

By , Columbian staff writer

Vancouver fire crews have responded to a rash of calls at the former Joe’s Crab Shack along the Columbia River — but most of the recent fires are actually coming from an old tunnel under the nearby pier.

Officials say the structure poses safety risks to those accessing it, including firefighters.

Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli said transient fires are tying up more of the city’s fire resources and can be particularly challenging to fight.

City crews worked last week to block the old tunnel, which Scarpelli said they’d done about 18 months ago when this problem began. But she said the grate that the city welded over the tunnel entrance has been breached, and people have resumed starting fires in the tunnel.

Deputy City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said in an email Wednesday that Public Works staff believed there was a layer of wood near the tunnel that’s been smoldering, and firefighters have been unable to reach it. A contractor drilled holes into the concrete so the smoldering wood could be extinguished.

City crews have upgraded the grate over the tunnel entrance to keep people out.

Scarpelli said the area is particularly dangerous for firefighters and arson investigators to access in the winter, when the river level is high. Summer also poses a risk, because fire danger is higher.

“It’s kind of really unpredictable weather, but it might be a different story in July when it’s very hot,” Scarpelli said. “And if people light a fire and there are embers, I mean, the fire risk scenario can change rapidly depending on the time of the year and the moisture content of the fuels.”

Fires in that area aren’t close enough to risk the former Joe’s Crab Shack or any other structures, Scarpelli said. If any fire there were to spread toward the water, she said, it could risk the nearby pier, but that structure is currently out of service.

The fire marshal noted another hotspot her office has responded to lately: a homeless camp north of Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard, where Northeast Chkalov Drive turns into 112th Avenue. Between April 8 and 12, the city fire marshal’s office responded to the encampment six times.

By the time crews arrive, the people are usually gone, Scarpelli said, which makes investigating the fire difficult and holding anyone accountable for any damage even more challenging.

Scarpelli said the majority of calls to homeless camps are for fires in one of two categories: cooking fires and warming fires.

When reflecting on 2021’s fire year, Scarpelli noted the category that grew the most was transient-related fires. Her office responded to about 100 more fires compared with 2020.

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