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Wednesday, June 7, 2023
June 7, 2023

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Portion of Vancouver homeless camp ‘The Swamps’ cleared after fire

WSDOT fences off segment of encampment, permanently blocking access

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
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A heap of burned belongings, wood and trash sit by the roadside Wednesday afternoon at the site of The Swamps homeless encampment in east Vancouver.
A heap of burned belongings, wood and trash sit by the roadside Wednesday afternoon at the site of The Swamps homeless encampment in east Vancouver. Photo Gallery

After a fire last week scorched part of a houseless encampment in east Vancouver, the Washington State Department of Transportation is clearing out that side of the encampment for good.

The encampment, called The Swamps by its residents, is at the intersection of Northeast 107th Avenue and 53rd Street. People previously lived on both sides of the road, with tents stretching far back into the woods.

Now, people on the west side of the road where the fire broke out March 3 have been evacuated after WSDOT, which owns the land, posted a 72-hour notice to vacate.

What had been a bustling community of campers now looks like a wasteland.

A “No Trespassing” sign is fastened to a chain-link fence erected by WSDOT to block off the scorched portion of the encampment. Above it is a “For Sale” sign as the department continues to try to sell the property, so far without luck. Behind it are heaps of charred belongings, wood and trash.

WSDOT plans to secure the site and keep it vacant, according to Bill Morrison, WSDOT assistant regional administrator of maintenance and operations. The fence is meant to prevent people from re-entering the area.

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“That’s the only way we can really keep it vacant,” Morrison said. “Obviously, fencing doesn’t always stop that, but we’ll hope that it does.”

People are still able to camp on the side of the street unaffected by the fire, which remains unfenced.

Many people who lived in the affected area have crossed the street to camp on the other side, according to Swamps residents. Robert Anderson, who has lived at The Swamps for about four years, is among those who moved to the other side.

It was Anderson’s warming fire that started the blaze, according to Anderson. He noted he doesn’t have a working phone, so he wasn’t able to immediately call 911.

The Vancouver Fire Marshal’s Office has not yet released an official fire cause; efforts to reach the office were unsuccessful Thursday.

The amount of clutter at the camp, along with the fires people light to keep warm in the winter, make The Swamps an especially flammable location.

“It grew quick,” Anderson said, adding that he had been awake cooking food when his home caught fire in the middle of the night.

Anderson has settled in on the opposite side of the camp, but he doesn’t plan to stay, he said. He knows WSDOT is trying to sell the property, so all residents will have to leave in the near future, though he doesn’t know where he’ll go.

Peter, a former Swamps resident who requested to be identified by his first name for privacy reasons, said many residents struggle with physical and mental health issues.

“I got out of here because there’s just too much trash piling up,” said Peter, who is now couch surfing but still visits The Swamps occasionally. “I just hope that they have an after plan for these people, because they have nowhere else to go.”

Meanwhile, WSDOT employees continue clearing out debris — not just from the fire, but from years of accumulated trash and abandoned items.

“They’ve been loading material out there for at least two days and plan to work through the weekend and probably into next week to clear it,” Morrison said.

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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