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Vancouver begins cleanup after city bans camping in Burnt Bridge Creek area due to wildfire risk

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian staff writer
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Peter Bracchi, who has advocated for a camping ban for years, walks through an abandoned homeless encampment in Vancouver's Arnold Park. The Vancouver City Council approved amendments Monday to its camping ordinance that address fire impact zones surrounding Burnt Bridge Creek. City staff said the area's dense vegetation, steep hills and limited sources of water make it susceptible to wildfires. Homeless encampments nestled in the area pose an increased danger, as fires for cooking or warmth could easily spread and wouldn't be accessible to firefighters.
Peter Bracchi, who has advocated for a camping ban for years, walks through an abandoned homeless encampment in Vancouver's Arnold Park. The Vancouver City Council approved amendments Monday to its camping ordinance that address fire impact zones surrounding Burnt Bridge Creek. City staff said the area's dense vegetation, steep hills and limited sources of water make it susceptible to wildfires. Homeless encampments nestled in the area pose an increased danger, as fires for cooking or warmth could easily spread and wouldn't be accessible to firefighters. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Peter Bracchi knows Arnold Park like it’s his own backyard – and that’s because it is.

The West Minnehaha resident moved into his home on the north side of Arnold Park six years ago. Since then, he’s become a fierce advocate for protecting the park’s sensitive environment.

That’s why when the Vancouver City Council updated its city code Monday to ban camping and “outside habitation” in the area to mitigate wildfire risk, Bracchi called it the happiest day of his life.

“This area is not meant for people to live in, it’s made for preservation,” he said Tuesday afternoon while walking through the west side of the park. “This is a different kind of park. This isn’t swings and slides, this is a nature preserve. This area used to have so many deer, owls, birds. All that’s changed. Simple logic says: ‘With all the people living here for so many years, all the garbage, the feces, the chemicals, and the rain washing it all into the creek, it can’t be good for the environment.’ I can’t prove anything, but it can’t help.”

A retiree, geology major and nature lover, Bracchi became invested in Arnold Park and the areas surrounding Burnt Bridge Creek after he started noticing homeless encampments off the trail. Some of them were well-hidden and well-established. Many were surrounded by litter, burn barrels, propane tanks, gasoline cans and other flammable materials. Some had structures built from trees cut down in the park, while others had all the natural vegetation removed, creating areas ripe for invasive weeds.

Bracchi started introducing himself to people living in the area and was troubled to learn that many of them were drinking from the creek and bathing in it.

“There are no water quality signs in the area,” he said.

In 2016, he began petitioning the Vancouver City Council and other agencies to ban camping of any kind in Arnold Park. He began assembling documentation and recording what he saw to prove Arnold Park’s environment was at risk. He compiled his own reports and sent them to every agency he thought could help. For six years, he felt like he was yelling into the void.

That is, until Monday, when the city council passed its ordinance.

“This is just a huge win for homeowners and the homeless themselves, even though they may not realize it,” he said.

He hopes that those who have been living in the area — some for six years — are able to access resources and housing. Still, he doesn’t want them to continue living along Burnt Bridge Creek.

Through his observations, Bracchi estimates 30 to 40 people were living there at any given time.

“People say I’m a homeless hater, but I’m just thinking about the environment,” he said. “I’ve come at this from every angle possible: It’s hurting the environment. It’s ruining the animal habitat. Trees are being cut down, and some are burning. It’s impacting the salmon habitat. I feel like I’ve been playing whack-a-mole, which issue can I hit that will finally get the city to address this?”

The answer: wildfire risk.

Addressing fire impacts

The Vancouver City Council approved an amendment Monday to its camping code that expounds on fire dangers within homeless encampments.

Specifically, the title of the code will be changed from “Camping” to “Outside Habitation and Camping.” Expanded impact areas will cover the land along the Burnt Bridge Creek drainage area from Vancouver Lake to East Fourth Plain Boulevard, as well as southern slopes along the drainage.

The Burnt Bridge Creek canyon’s heavy vegetation, steep hills and limited source of water make it more susceptible to being consumed by wildfires. As the Pacific Northwest’s fire season intensifies, encampments nestled in these areas pose a danger to those residing in them, surrounding neighborhoods and the environment.

Outdoor fire ignitions jumped nearly 600 percent in the past six years. In 2016, there were more than 20 incidents, which swelled to 168 in 2021, Vancouver Fire Chief Brennan Blue said during the city council meeting.

Onshore winds can drive fires up and out of the canyon, which are often inaccessible for firefighters to extinguish because of the densely covered landscape and restricted water supply.

High voltage transmission lines that stretch over portions of the canyon could also harm those living in the buffer zone underneath. Large amounts of smoke — a conduit for electricity — could rise from the camps, furl around cables and cause power outages.

The Vancouver Fire Department and the Department of Natural Resources are collaborating to find potential solutions to the remote, high-risk fires. To counteract the threat, the groups are considering adding emergency phones, as well as adding water resources to fill the absence of hydrants, the chief said.

Earlier adjustments banning camping in publicly owned spaces were created in fall 2021 to prepare for the city’s first set of Safe Stay Communities.

Camping at all hours is prohibited within 1,000 feet of Vancouver’s Safe Stay Communities and 200 feet from any body of water. The city is required to allow people to live in public spaces because adequate facilities are not available, said Aaron Lande, policy and program manager. However, they can prohibit camping if it poses a risk to both those living outside and the public.

Council members Bart Hansen and Erik Paulsen predict the camps will move outward toward trails and emphasized the need to establish more shelters.

“People who live outside are going to continue to live outside but somewhere else,” Hansen said.

Next steps

Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team began notifying people two months ago that camping would soon be banned along Burnt Bridge Creek, and they would have to move.

With the advanced notice, many left the area before the council approved the ordinance, but some remained.

On Monday, the team worked from the east side of the park and moved west to connect with residents in the camps. They were told to leave within one week while also being notified of services available to them, according to Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homelessness response coordinator.

So far, the team moved one person from Arnold Park into the Living Hope Safe Stay Community, and a couple was offered housing resources. Now, they are one step closer to being housed, Spinelli said.

Because many camps were well-established, the Homeless Assistance and Resource Team has been busy cleaning the remaining debris, but it anticipates finishing within two weeks.

“We want to get this done as quickly as possible because the heat we’re having is going to bring dry weather, and it will be ripe for fires,” Spinelli said. “We’re giving as much assistance as possible to make sure people move.”

After fire season ends, the team will continue enforcing the camping ban.

“Even over the past winter and early in the spring, we still had fires out in these areas,” Spinelli said. “The hope is that we will continue to open new shelter options this year so we’re not displacing people or just moving them around.”

Even with the Homeless Assistance and Resource Team enforcing the ban, camping will still occur from time to time along Burnt Bridge Creek.

“I don’t want people to think that with this ordinance that there will never be people living here again,” Spinelli said. “Some people might not know about the ban, or they might not be immediately identified by HART, but that is something HART will continue to monitor regularly.”

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