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‘Dangerous’: Seattle’s Homeless Camps Keep Catching On Fire, And Drug Use Is To Blame

  Seattle Fire Department (SFD) responses to homeless encampment fires have soared in the past two years, based on its data, with experts bl...

 Seattle Fire Department (SFD) responses to homeless encampment fires have soared in the past two years, based on its data, with experts blaming drug use for some of the blazes.

The city had more than 1,500 encampment-related fire responses in 2022, up more than 80% and 6% compared to 2020 and 2021 respectively, the data obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation shows. Some of the fires start because of intoxicated homeless people either cooking drugs, warming themselves or cooking food, former SFD firefighter Steve Collins, whose career spanned more than 25 years, told the DCNF.

“What happens is, let’s just say they’re trying to heat up a can of spam or whatever they’re making for dinner, and they create a fire, and while they have a fire heating up their dinner they pass out because of excessive drug use and lack of sleep,” Collins described. “Well, they’re not gonna wake up. So then these fires get started, whether it’s in a building or it’s in a tent or a group of tents, and it’s off to the races.”

Collins served his last on-duty shift with the SFD in September 2021 and was fired for not receiving a mandated COVID-19 vaccine, which he religiously objects to, he told the DCNF. More than 60 others were fired, Collins said, with he and more than 20 of them suing the City of Seattle for wrongful termination.

The SFD conducted more than 106,000 fire suppression, rescue or medical emergency responses in 2022, a roughly 32% higher total than in 2020, according to its statistics.

The department enhanced the accuracy of its encampment fire response reporting statistics by adopting a new tracking system in mid-2021, SFD Communications Specialist David Cuerpo said. The SFD is able to handle the encampment fire call volume with its daily on-duty strength of 220 uniformed officers, he reported.

“Pinpointing the cause of every encampment fire is difficult due to multiple possible ignition sources,” Cuerpo told the DCNF. “Many encampment fires are ruled as ‘accidental’ and are caused by warming or cooking fires getting out of control. Yes, some are also caused by drug use.”

More than 13,000 homeless people were living in Seattle and broader King County in 2022, surpassing every similar area nationwide except the far more populous Los Angeles County and five-borough New York City, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. City statistics showed police responded to 113 calls about gunfire at or near encampments in 2021, up from 51 such calls in 2020, King 5 reported.

Seattle had a 17% increase in medical responses to homeless people between 2020 and 2022, according to the SFD statistics. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day vigil organizers said a 20-year record number of homeless people died in King County in 2022, KOUW reported.

Washington Policy Center Vice President Paul Guppy argued the homeless encampment fire increase is part of a general public safety decline due to Seattle City Council policies that he called “the ongoing legacy of BLM riots and the defund the police movement, when arson and property destruction were widespread.”

The city council approved a budget in November to permanently remove 80 unfilled Seattle Police Department (SPD) positions, The Seattle Times reported. More than 150 officers left the SPD in 2022, the Seattle Police Officers Guild told KTTH, following 170 reported departures in 2021 and 186 in 2020.

“Seattle is proud of its parks and green spaces but in practice long-term encampments, threatening behavior, arson and crime mean access to many public spaces is denied to most people, especially children,” Guppy told the DCNF. “Seattle has a budget of $7 billion, so there is no shortage of resources.  The hardliners on the city council like the current course, but only reversing the harmful policies of the past will end encampment fires and the level of neighborhood crime, and help make Seattle communities safe for everyone.”

Firefighters often can’t be certain whether a particular encampment site contains a meth-cooking operation, Collins explained.

“Those places are always dangerous to firemen,” he said of many drug users’ encampments. “They have weapons, they don’t want you there, whether you’re gonna put out a fire or not, they have needles, they have all sorts of other stuff. The long-term danger is they have lots of bad things that when they burn and you inhale them, it harms you.”

Most of the homeless people in Seattle came from elsewhere, Collins told the DCNF. He claimed many are “dedicated to being homeless” so they can receive an abundance of services and help.

“These people move around all the time,” Collins told the DCNF. “And they’ll tell you, ‘I was in New York, I was in Florida, and I heard about all the benefits that they get in Seattle, so I came out here.'”

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