A homeless man was taken to the hospital with minor injuries after the shed he was sleeping in caught fire at about 10:53 a.m. Thursday. After extinguishing that fire, city of Napa firefighters were called to another one, this time near the homeless encampment by Gasser Drive.
“Homeless encampment fires have, in recent times, been a significant response for us,” Capt. Steve Becker said. The frequency of these fires has increased in the last few years.
Some are due to careless warming fires or cooking fires while some have been intentionally set, sometimes as a form of retribution, he said. But all of them present unique fire suppression hazards to responding firefighters.
As with both of Thursday’s incidents, many of these fires occur in areas that may be difficult to access along riverbanks or in secluded areas. The makeshift tents are often made of hazardous synthetic material and propane tanks, needles and medical and human waste are also present.
Several propane tanks exploded during the morning fire in a shed on an unoccupied lot at the end of D Street Alley next to a well-established homeless encampment. One person was asleep in the structure during the fire, Becker said.
“He woke up to his pants and clothing being on fire,” Becker said. The man was able to extinguish the flames, and, with help from others, escape from the structure. He was being treated for minor injuries at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
“He’s a very, very lucky individual,” Becker said.
The outbuilding was being used by the homeless population in the area for refuge and sleeping, he said. Several other campsites were set up nearby.
“A lot of people don’t realize they’re back here,” Battalion Chief Jarrett Anderson said of the location near Highway 29. If the any of the campsites caught fire, he said, it would be very difficult for the occupant to get out.
“When that stuff’s burning, it’s very hazardous,” Anderson said, pointing to one campsite made out of tarps and blankets. Inside, he said, is a fire pit.
The fire on D Street Alley has three investigators assigned to it, but some of these encampment fires are never fully investigated.
“They’re very hazardous to investigate,” Becker said. Many times, the people involved don’t want to cooperate with fire or law enforcement officials. On top of that, there’s usually not a substantial loss of property.”
“We don’t want to discount the property of these people and what they do have,” he said, but “we have to be conscious that these camps offer very significant hazards to investigators.”
So which fires are investigated? If it’s known to be an intentionally set fire, someone was injured or the community is being cooperative, then it will be investigated, Becker said.
“We do take it serious, we don’t just discount it just because they’re homeless,” he said. To try to prevent these things from happening again and prevent injury, he said, fire officials may even talk to the affected community about fire safety.
The day’s second encampment-related fire was not considered significant.