The serious injury last week of a person living in a cinder block chamber beneath the Steel Bridge was the latest and most extreme example of an ongoing problem: fires at homeless encampments lit by freezing Portlanders struggling to keep warm on the streets.
In the case of the person living inside the bridge, the smoke from an out-of-control fire was nearly fatal. The victim was found unresponsive by firefighters and taken to the hospital March 8.
In a cover story last fall, WW reported that 2,048 fires started in or near homeless camps in 2021 (“Camp Fires Everywhere,” Nov. 2, 2022) That was nearly half of all fires in Portland, according to Portland Fire & Rescue, and the number had more than doubled since 2019.
New unreported data obtained by WW from the fire bureau shows this ratio continued into 2022. There were 1,959 of what the bureau calls “homeless-related fires” last year, 41% of all fires in the city. That percentage climbed during winter months when temperatures at night sometimes plunged below freezing.
The question of what to do about that trend has become among the most bitterly argued in Portland since City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez banned bureaus under his oversight from distributing tents to unhoused people. That policy shift, decried by advocates for the unhoused, occurred less than a month ago—too recently for any shift in fire counts to be statistically significant.