[Posted June 23, 2023]
A complete summer burn ban goes into effect in Multnomah County on July 6. With record numbers of people living outdoors in Portland, some in wooded areas near residential areas, it’s worth asking how the City plans to manage the risk of urban wildfire posed by homeless camps this summer.
The answer is: business as usual. Camps must still be reported by the public at pdxreporter.org, followed by a risk assessment process which may result in removal by the city's Homeless and Urban Camping Reduction Program. Despite the burn ban and the elevated risk posed by camps, there are no plans to proactively remove camps in high-risk areas. (Find a selection of articles on fires and homeless camps here, here, and here.)
Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, whose office oversees the fire bureau, made a clear statement in a February 2, 2023, press release, saying: “There is no such thing as a safe fire at Portland’s homeless camps.” And in fact, a policy adopted by the city in July of 2021 calls for relocating homeless camps from high risk wildfire hazard areas.
Much of both the west and east sides of SW Barbur Blvd are in designated Wildfire Hazard Zones, where the risk of wildfire has been determined to be greater.
Commissioner Rene Gonzalez's office has not responded to emails requesting information on specific plans for addressing wildfire risks related to homeless camps. The response from Cody Bowman in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office consisted of a reiteration of the existing process to report a camp for possible removal at pdxreporter.org.
Changes to camping policy recently adopted by the City Council prohibit camping at unsanctioned sites on public property between the hours of 8pm and 8am. According to Bowman, campfires in camps are also prohibited. These changes go into effect on July 7: enforcement starts with written warnings, and subsequent violations may result in fines and jail time.
In an email, Portland Fire and Rescue Public Information Officer Rick Graves said that, as in past years, firefighters will respond to and extinguish reported fires, as well as handing out fire safety postcards to people living outside. He encourages residents to call 911 if they see open fires.
The response from PF&R was timely, if concerning. The upshot is that PF&R acknowledges the risk of fire from homeless camps, but lacks the resources to preventively locate and remove camps that pose a fire hazard. Cars, tents, and RVs associated with camps are often visible from Barbur Boulevard and I-5 south of the Corbett Ave exit, but dangerous fires could be difficult for neighbors or passers-by to spot, making it unlikely that they could be quickly reported.
But what about camps in more secluded wooded areas that are hidden from obvious view, and where access is also more difficult for fire crews?
A second PF&R spokesperson, Lt. Laurent Picard, said that there are not enough resources for his agency or the City to find every hidden camp that may pose a fire hazard, but that the public can help by reporting camps at pdx reporter.org. He added, “For any concerns about campers setting fires in the city—if the public sees a fire associated with a houseless camp, they should call 911 and we will respond and extinguish it.”
One Hillsdale resident, whose home is close to a long-time camp above Barbur Blvd, shared with the Hillsdale News a concern that the upcoming ban on daytime camping will lead to more people heading for the woods, often to private property, where they are even less likely to be located and cited for unauthorized camping. He believes the camp near his home is on private property, and that past attempts to have it removed have been stymied by an absentee landowner. According to PF&R, firefighters and other city personnel are able to respond to emergencies on private property, but otherwise may not enter without a complaint from the owner.
Encampments on private property fall under the purview of the city’s Bureau of Development Services. Residents with concerns about encampments on private property should still make a report at pdx reporter.org, but should also add a note requesting that the information be forwarded to the Bureau of Development Services.
Burn Ban Basics
Multnomah County has announced a ban on outdoor fires that takes effect in three phases. The first two are aimed at agricultural burning and backyard burning of yard debris, which are not allowed in the city of Portland. The third phase bans recreational campfires, fire pits, and any other open burning as of July 6, 2023.
Outdoor barbecuing (grills, smokers, and similar cooking appliances with clean, dry firewood, briquettes, wood chips, pellets, propane, natural gas, or similar fuels) is still allowed, with extreme caution advised: dispose of the charcoal ashes in a covered metal container away from combustibles, and keep the ashes wet for a few days before properly disposing of them; maintain at least ten feet between outdoor cooking and anything combustible such as siding, fences, shrubbery, etc; and ensure cigarettes are completely extinguished before they go in the trash.
The burn ban remains in effect until further notification. In 2022, the burn ban was lifted on October 1.
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