When a tarp structure caught fire last month about 20 feet from the tent where Terry Shipman has been living in Beacon Hill, he quickly started packing his things.
Chris Erickson, who lives just 30 feet up the hill, had a much different reaction: He just said, “OK,” and went back to sleep.
“I’m halfway used to it,” Erickson said. The fire didn’t touch either men’s living spaces.
Homeless encampments have proliferated around Seattle in recent months as COVID-19 has forced some shelters to reduce the number of beds to keep people further apart, and Seattle government has largely stopped clearing the camps.
Along with that growth has come a dramatic increase in fires at campsites, data from the Seattle Fire Department show. In August, the department responded to 94 encampment fires, compared to just 38 during same month last year.
From January to August of this year, fire crews logged 420 encampment fires, compared to 292 by that point last year. Encampment fires in earlier years were not reliably recorded, a Fire Department spokesperson said.
Shipman said the Seattle Fire Department responded to the encampment fire last month, but a spokesperson for the department said dispatch couldn’t find a record of the fire in the time frame given.
The fires have no connection to the wildfires throughout the Northwest that poured smoke into region.
Outreach workers say the spike in encampment fires may in part be associated with more people cooking their food in camps because meal programs that provide hot food have been disrupted or shut down by the pandemic.
In addition to the dangers to campers, fires at encampments near and under portions of Interstate 5 have for years raised alarms about potential damage to the freeway and risks to drivers.
On Sept. 1, fire crews found the body of a homeless man while cleaning up the remains of a camp consumed by a brush fire off the northbound I-5 off -ramp to Seneca Street, according to the King County Medical Examiner.
In May, authorities shut down I-5 in both directions in Seattle after a fire in a homeless camp under the Washington State Convention Center created so much smoke drivers couldn’t see.
And in January, a fire underneath I-5 in Sodo ignited propane tanks and shot flames 50 feet into the air, scorching the underside of the freeway.
“The numbers are really out of control and they really do put everybody at risk,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area and a member of the I-5 System Partnership, a state-convened group representing transportation agencies, jurisdictions and businesses from Tumwater to Arlington concerned about the future of I-5.
Many people who are homeless are making do by cooking their own food, sometimes in the dry grass of a greenbelt, or even in their tents, outreach workers say.
Alejandra Santos, an outreach care coordinator with REACH, which provides services to people who are homeless, said a camper she was working with in Kent cooked in her tent because her allegedly abusive partner was in the area and she was scared of being seen outside.
“They live in a flammable material, and they’re trying to live just like you and I,” Santos said. “Their tent is basically everything. Their kitchen and their house.”
Fire investigators have seen some increase in fires in Kent, but just in one wooded area, a spokesperson for the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority said.
Santos said she called several women’s and family shelters to try to get the woman inside, but none had openings.
Outreach workers believe the rise in fires could be connected in part to disruption in food programs after the coronavirus pandemic pushed some churches and agencies in King County to limit their meals or hours, give away uncooked food, or stop offering meals entirely.
“Meal programs have closed, or they’re very reduced, so they’re harder to find,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, which has delivered 37,000 boxed meals to campers since the beginning of the pandemic. “People are having to figure out food where they can.”
That’s true for Erickson, who used to frequent the Rainier Pop-Up Kitchen, which is temporarily suspended; St. Francis House, which can help “once a month,” according to its website; and Operation Sack Lunch, which moved its outdoor meal program to Belltown, too far for Erickson to reach easily.
Some of the meal programs that shut down have reopened, said Jeff Wolcott, who runs Community Lunch on Capitol Hill, but disruption still causes disconnection. Wolcott’s program, which served 140 to 150 people on average at each meal before the COVID-19 closures, lost between 20 and 50 diners depending on the day.
This summer’s protests also have kept some people from accessing meals. Wolcott’s program served food out of a church next to Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park, the site of numerous protests over the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police.
“If you shut down a little bit, even for a couple days, it throws them and they’re out. They go elsewhere,” Wolcott said, adding it’s much harder to predict how many people will come to a meal than before COVID.