Homeless encampment fires: Trying hard to find the numbers

If you think there have been a lot more homeless encampment fires of late, you would be right. But, homeless encampment fires are somewhat a numbers game, but the numbers are hard to find.

The fire that burned a Pittsburg roofing business's inventory and storage lot full of plastic piping, was caused by a fire that started in a homeless encampment just outside of the businesses perimeters. 

With fire season longer, hotter, dryer and often windier, firefighters have great reason to be concerned and so should you. 

"A lot of our fires, I don't have the exact number, but a lot of our fires end up starting in and around homeless encampments," said Public Information Officer Steve Hill of the Contra Costa Fire District.

By the Bay Area Council's count, there are slightly more than 28,200 homeless people in the Bay Area. Sixty-seven percent of them— about 19,000, have no temporary shelters, subsidized or transitional housing.  That helps experts understand why so many homeless encampments have sprung up everywhere. 

"This highlights a particular problem for us this time of year with the high fire dangers we're experiencing now and will through the fall certainly," said Steve Hill.

But, fire-related numbers are actually hard to come by. 

CalFire does not specifically track homeless encampment fires. Many fire departments do not specifically track them at all. 

Some departments, such as San Jose, have been tracking such fires for the better part of a year. From New Year's Day until June 24th of last year, San Jose Fire counted 54 homeless related fires, compared to 51 during the same time frame this year. 

"Now, is that because there hasn't been a change in the frequency of fires? Is it because we've had more rain this year so the fires, earlier in the year, didn't get going?  Would have to do a day by day analysis to figure that out and that hasn't been done," said Captain Mitch Matlow of the San Jose Fire Department. 

The new recordkeeping is still being refined. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department reports that last year, it fought an average of 165 homeless encampment fires a month, 211 percent more such fires than the year before. Some of the increase was due to better data collection.

And firefighters don't have the time to go proactively police encampments until smoke or fire shows up. 

"We only do it reactively, not proactively in the fire department, but when we do go out to a homeless encampment, if they have a fire burning, we attempt to educate them on not only is it unsafe, but it is illegal," Matlow.

Without this kind of information, it's difficult to find innovative solutions.