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News / Clark County News

Blaze scorches portion of Vancouver homeless camp ‘The Swamps’

Community agencies respond to help residents

By Kelsey Turner, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 3, 2023, 6:03pm
3 Photos
City of Vancouver Homeless Assistance and Resource Team members (from left) Sheila Andrews and Jamie Spinelli, and Council for the Homeless outreach members Cody Shaw and Clara Johnson respond to encampment residents' needs after a fire early Friday morning burned down a portion of The Swamps encampment in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood.
City of Vancouver Homeless Assistance and Resource Team members (from left) Sheila Andrews and Jamie Spinelli, and Council for the Homeless outreach members Cody Shaw and Clara Johnson respond to encampment residents' needs after a fire early Friday morning burned down a portion of The Swamps encampment in Vancouver's North Image neighborhood. (Kelsey Turner/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Drew Fish, a resident at a homeless encampment in east Vancouver, awoke Friday in the middle of the night to the sound of propane tanks exploding.

The explosions were the result of a fire that broke out at an encampment at the intersection of Northeast 107th Avenue and Northeast 53rd Street, often referred to as “The Swamps.” Encampment residents said the blaze began when a person’s warming fire got out of control.

“It just spread and got bigger,” said Fish, who took a video of the blaze on his phone. “Everybody was just kind of watching it.”

The community immediately responded to help those at risk. The Vancouver Fire Department, the Washington State Department of Transportation, and outreach teams at the city and county levels all met at The Swamps Friday morning to play their parts.

Get Help

If you are experiencing homelessness and are seeking help, call the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677.

Vancouver fire units were called to the encampment around 2 a.m. Friday, according to a statement from the department. Firefighters fought the blaze for about 2½ hours. One encampment resident was treated and released with minor burns.

The fire is now under investigation by the Vancouver Fire Marshal’s Office. No information about the investigation was available Friday.

The damage

The Swamps was uncharacteristically quiet when the sun came up Friday morning. “Everybody kind of is in decompression mode because the anxiety of everything was so high,” said Sheila Andrews, Vancouver’s encampment response coordinator.

The smell of smoke still hung in the air as outreach workers and employees with WSDOT, which owns the land where The Swamps is located, surveyed the area.

Blackened tree trunks, scorched from the blaze, stretched into a gray sky. At their bases lay heaps of charred belongings — lawn chairs, shopping carts, lamps, plastic bins, carpets, furniture, trash.

Council for the Homeless outreach teams arrived around 8 a.m. with tarps, backpacks, hygiene kits and other supplies to help mitigate the loss, according to Clara Johnson, the council’s coordinated outreach director.

“We’re working on getting folks resources, to get them hotels so that they can get cleaned up,” Johnson said. “Thankfully, there were no fatalities.”

Andrews estimated about 10 Swamps residents were affected by the fire. But it’s hard to be sure, since most people living by the blaze fled before outreach arrived.

“They did kind of all scatter, which is common when the fire department shows up,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homelessness response coordinator. “But we know who the stuff belongs to.”

If the encampment needs to be cleared, outreach will ensure residents get proper notice, Spinelli added.

“The goal is to find the people who still have stuff back in here, let them know they have a little bit of time to get whatever they want and need to grab of their possessions that are still kind of viable, and then get them either into shelter rooms or hotel rooms,” she said.

‘Nothing new’

A fire like this is nothing new for homeless outreach teams, according to Spinelli. People light fires to stay warm during the wet winter, and sometimes the flames get out of hand. Propane tanks and the amount of flammable items at The Swamps can make it particularly dangerous when fires break out.

“I’ve seen bigger and I’ve seen smaller (fires),” Spinelli said. “The things that are concerning is that there are people involved, number one, that could be hurt. It’s difficult to get out of here because of the amount of stuff that’s here. Number two, there are obviously nearby businesses and residences.”

Bill Morrison, WSDOT assistant regional administrator of maintenance and operations, is responsible for maintenance and assessing safety concerns at the site.

“We’re going to put fencing in because this is not safe for anybody to be in there,” Morrison said. “We’re going to try and secure it best we can, and we’ll evaluate steps moving forward.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff reporter