Brush fire affecting Ogden homeless encampment has fire officials concerned


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OGDEN — A brush fire in Ogden affected a homeless encampment Tuesday, burning one person. Fire officials are worried about the dangerous mix of homeless encampments and dry fuels as the temperatures rise.

Ogden Fire Department Deputy Chief Shelby Willis called it a grass fire. The fire started area of I-15 and 21st Street in Ogden just after 5:45 p.m. Tuesday and prompted a large response, with plumes being seen on traffic cameras reaching high into the Ogden skyline.

"Highway patrol was first on scene, called it in, actually an off-duty highway patrolman reported hearing multiple popping sounds," Weber Fire Deputy Chief David Reed said.

Firefighters on scene located several propane tanks and fuel canisters, according to Reed. Due to difficulties arriving and a minimized water supply, firefighters faced difficulty accessing the area, leading to a 10-acre blaze.

Escaping the flames

As the fire grew, it encroached on a homeless encampment. Dustin Smith suffered minor injuries from the fire.

"He was treated and advised to be transported, but he refused medical," Reed said.

Smith narrowly escaped the flames, he told KSL-TV on Tuesday evening. "It went up fast, it went up so fast," he said. "It went up instantly, instantly. It's amazing how fast that went up."

Smith acknowledges how lucky he was.

"I got some burns, but that's about it," Smith said. "I'll live, but it took everything. I have nothing left. Nothing, I don't even have a shirt."

The encampment that was burned has been cleared by the city at least once before, with crews removing a dump truck full of belongings. But within a couple of weeks, it was back to having several people living there again, Reed said.

Fuel moisture has been cited as a proponent for why this fire spread as far and as quickly as it did. Firefighters said the black smoke Tuesday came from a large pile of garbage and tons of propane tanks.

"We've gone from having no restrictions on (June) 4th, to putting in our historical restrictions because of how dry it is and how fast fire spreads," Reed said.

Reed said the fire was "human-caused," but didn't provide an exact source. He said that specifics are under investigation at this time.

Homeless camps and heat could increase fire risk

After Tuesday's incident, fire officials are worried about the dangerous mix of homeless encampments and dry fuels as the temperatures rise.

City officials said homeless camps are usually set up in areas that are obscured by trees and brushes, and adding dry fuels like camp stoves could create a very dangerous situation.

Bill Morris, the city administrator for Marriott-Slaterville, said aside from cooking food, city officials and first responders often find drug users in the encampments, who as a result are not allowed into local shelters.

"Making meth or some sort of drugs, or they're, they're stealing copper wire, and they're melting the plastic off of that so they can go sell the copper wire," Morris said.

Morris said city crews often move them out, only to have them show up somewhere else between their city, West Haven and Ogden.

"So you don't know what may be in that encampment environment. And, that presents dangers to the unsheltered as well as to the firefighters," said Ogden Fire Chief Mike Mathieu.

Mathieu said they recently started clearing trees and brush from a former encampment at the mouth of Ogden Canyon with the help of the city and landowner. He said that tends to discourage the camps but doesn't stop them from going elsewhere.

"We recognize the problem. We recognize there's no easy solution for it," Mathieu said.

Morris said that Marriott-Slaterville officials even proposed getting grants for a tiny home community to provide housing, but the idea was shot down by the Wasatch Front Regional Council. He said the city felt like the same groups were just being shuffled around.

Contributing: Kiersten Nunez and Larry D. Curtis

Correction: A previous version incorrectly referred to Bill Morris, city administrator for Marriott-Slaterville, as Bob.

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