Four People Living Outdoors Jan. 1 Were Burned Trying to Keep Warm

The New Year’s Day fires follow a weeklong scramble by Multnomah County officials to open and staff enough severe weather warming shelters to keep homeless Portlanders safe during snow and a cold snap.

Four people living on Portland’s streets suffered burns on New Year’s Day in fires that started as they tried to keep warm.

In less than seven hours on Jan. 1, Portland Fire & Rescue responded to three separate fires that injured people living outside.

A man in his 40s suffered second-degree burns from an accelerant but did not want to be taken to the hospital. Two people were severely burned on their legs and feet on the Central Eastside when the propane tank in their tent leaked. And a man suffered second-degree burns on his arm and leg—passersby woke him when they saw smoke billowing from his tent downtown.

“The patient had been warming with an unattended candle when it caught his sleeping bag on fire,” the fire bureau said in a statement. “The candle was too close to combustibles.”

Fifteen Portlanders died in residential fires in 2021, tying an all-time record. At least one of those deaths was a person living in a makeshift shelter.

Related: Traffic deaths are also a symptom of this city’s housing crisis.

The New Year’s Day fires follow a weeklong scramble by Multnomah County officials to open and staff enough severe weather warming shelters to keep homeless Portlanders safe during snow and a cold snap.

Volunteers filled 1,443 shifts in seven shelters between Dec. 25 and Jan. 2, a county spokesperson says. At least 345 of those volunteers were private citizens; the rest were workers for local government agencies and nonprofits. Emails reviewed by WW show county employees were offered 20% premium pay to staff warming shelters.

The repeated requests for public help showed the danger presented to a large unsheltered population by rather ordinary weather: Portland saw several inches of snow, which melted off each afternoon, and temperatures that dipped in the 20s most nights.

One person died from weather conditions during those eight days, according to the Multnomah County medical examiner. That hypothermia death matches the circumstances of a 78-year-old man who died after getting lost on his way home from a Veterans Affairs hospital appointment.

On the morning of Jan. 1, as firefighters were responding to several tent fires, four warming shelters held 254 people, roughly 50% of their capacity.