Seattle camp fires by 15% in 2022: “It’s difficult every time”

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The Seattle Fire Department has responded to 1,133 warehouse fires so far in 2022, not including Wednesday’s fire, which sent smoke from drivers under the north end of the Ship Canal Bridge.

SFD was able to provide figures from January 1st to September 25th, with a few days delay in reporting. During the same period from 2021, the department responded to 15% fewer emergency calls in camps – 981.

Warehouse fire under Seattle’s Ship Canal Bridge causes congestion on I-5

On Wednesday, drivers on the Ship Canal Bridge called 911 to report smoke on the road. Firefighters said they arrived to find billowing, acrid smoke coming from the camp, where several propane tanks were scattered. They said the situation called for extra precautions.

After hearing loud pops from the blaze, firefighters called additional resources, but the 75-by-75-foot blaze was extinguished within 10 minutes. Burnt lithium batteries were found under the rubble.

The fire slowed traffic on the bridge, but there was enough time for William Hughes to get home and watch through the holes in a wire fence as emergency crews doused the embers around his tent.

“I just saw the flames, and suddenly all these people were running,” he said.

“These things burn quickly,” he added, explaining how flammable the tents are. Hughes said his tent had propane tanks for cooking and other food supplies for the entire camp.

“All that stuff was in there,” Hughes said. “So the stuff started to burn and pop and when that happens you just have to walk away because you don’t know which way it’s going to shoot.”

Hughes told KIRO Newsradio he lost almost everything he had.

“Now I have to figure out for myself where dinner is tonight,” he said. “All my food just burned.”

But that’s not a new disaster for Hughes, who said he’s been through it three times now.

“They’re always scary, but that’s probably the biggest thing for me,” he said. “The hardest thing is you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation said it is inspecting the bridge but these types of fires don’t usually leave permanent damage to infrastructure.

With Governor Jay Inslee placing a Focus on clearing camps along the I-5 corridor and moving people to transitional housing, WSDOT requires four tasks before a site can be vacated: providing housing and services to the people living there; storage of their belongings; safety for on-site personnel and work teams; as well as restoration and cleaning of the property.

“WSDOT’s responsibility and expertise is limited to the final act, cleaning up the right-of-way once the people living there have moved into shelters or shelters,” said WSDOT spokesman James Poling. “This process is a collaborative effort by multiple state agencies and local jurisdictions.”

Poling also explained that camps on state rights of way are a complex issue that requires a solution that covers housing and shelter availability and sufficient time to work effectively with multiple state agencies and local jurisdictions.

“I know they give housing to people who’ve had a sweep, but I don’t know if that falls into the same category,” Hughes said.

KIRO Newsradio has reached out to the City of Seattle to clarify what is being done for the people living under the Ship Canal Bridge.

While clarifying that the year-old figures included reports of illegal burns – which may include callers reporting campfires on or near sheltered ground – the SFD said it was difficult to pinpoint the most common cause. Many cases were described as “accidental” or “undetermined,” according to the SFD.

Hughes said in his experience of fires that someone trying to keep warm has often fallen asleep next to an open flame.

But the cause of Wednesday’s fire was still being determined as of Thursday afternoon.

When asked what he will do now, Hughes said he wasn’t sure.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Every time.”

KIRO Newsradio has reached out to Hughes again to confirm if he has received any assistance.

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