Seattle encampment fires up 15% in 2022: ‘It’s tough every time’

Sep 29, 2022, 5:31 PM | Updated: 6:37 pm

Ship Canal Bridge encampment...

The encampment underneath Seattle’s Ship Canal Bridge — stretching across both sides of the I-5 express lanes near 42nd Street — has yet to be cleared, despite a sixth reported fire over the last month. (Sam Campbell/KIRO Newsradio)

(Sam Campbell/KIRO Newsradio)

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

SFD was able to provide numbers from Jan. 1 to Sept. 25, with a few days of delay in reporting. In the same time frame from 2021, the department responded to 15% fewer fire calls at encampments – 981.

Encampment fire under Seattle’s Ship Canal Bridge causes backups on I-5

On Wednesday, drivers on the Ship Canal Bridge called 911 to report smoke appearing on the road. Fire officials said they arrived to find billowing, acrid smoke from the encampment, which had multiple propane tanks scattered within its bounds. They said the situation called for extra precautions.

After hearing loud popping noises coming from the flames, firefighters called in extra resources, but the 75-by-75-foot fire was put out within 10 minutes. Burned lithium batteries were found among the debris.

The fire slowed traffic on the bridge, but it was enough time for William Hughes to come home and watch through the holes of a wire fence as responders doused the embers around what was his tent.

“I just saw the flames, and all of a sudden, there were all these people running out,” he said.

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

“All of that stuff was in there,” Hughes said. “So that stuff started burning and popping, and when that happens, you have to just get away because you don’t know which direction it’s going to shoot.”

Hughes told KIRO Newsradio he lost nearly everything he had.

“Now, for me, I’ve got to figure out where’s dinner tonight,” he said. “All of my food just burnt up.”

But this isn’t a new disaster for Hughes, who said he’s gone through this three times now.

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

Washington State Department of Transportation said it is inspecting the bridge, but these kinds of fires typically do not leave lasting damage to the infrastructure.

With Gov. Jay Inslee placing an emphasis on clearing out encampments along the I-5 corridor and moving people into transitional housing, WSDOT requires four items of business before a site can be cleared: Offering a shelter and services to people living there; storage of their belongings; safety and security for people on-site and work crews; and restoration and cleanup of the property.

“WSDOT’s responsibility and expertise is limited to the last action, the clean up of right of way once the people living there have moved to housing or shelter,” said WSDOT’s spokesperson James Poling. “This process is a joint effort with several state agencies and local jurisdictions.”

Poling also stated that encampments on state rights-of-way are a complex issue, requiring a solution that covers housing and shelter availability along with sufficient time for effective joint-effort outreach with several state agencies and local jurisdictions.

“I know they give housing for people who have (been through) a sweep, but I don’t know if this falls under the same category,” Hughes said.

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

While clarifying that the year-long numbers included reports of illegal burning — which can include callers reporting campfires on or near protected ground — SFD said it was difficult to pinpoint the most common cause. Many cases have been labeled as “accidental” or “undetermined,” according to SFD.

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

But the cause of Wednesday’s fire is still under determination 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 back out to Hughes to confirm if he has received assistance.

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Seattle encampment fires up 15% in 2022: ‘It’s tough every time’