Sparks from Lents transient camp set nearby home ablaze

See why neighbors say this outer East Portland fire was an ‘tragedy waiting to happen’ …

These are the smoldering remains of the homeless camp fire – the embers of which set fire to the roof of a nearby Lents home.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

A transient camp that extended out into SE 96 Avenue, about a block north of SE Harold Street on the border of ODOT’s I-205 property, caught fire at 4 p.m. on July 29, bringing Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) crews to the scene.

The fire burned so fiercely, it partly melted shopping carts in the camp. “The thing about these homeless campfires is that a lot of the products of combustion are made of petroleum products, so they burn super fast and super hot,” PF&R spokesperson Lt. Laurent Picard told reporters afterward.

A “full house fire” response is called for, after embers light the roof of this garage on fire.

PF&R Lents Station 11’s two-person Rescue crew, posted only two blocks away, were first to arrive; the fire was across the street from houses, so the fire crew kept an eye on them until the fire in the camp, and in a nearby tree just outside the ODOT fence, had burned out.

The firefighters remained to watch for any extensions of the brief-yet-intense blaze – and, at 4:32 p.m., they spotted wisps of smoke rising from the wood shake shingle roof of a detached garage at 5360 SE 96th Avenue, and they called for a full fire response. “Embers from the initial fire that had drifted across the street, landed on the roof of this house, and ignited it,” explained Lt. Picard.

To get at the fire, crew members begin tearing off wooden shingles.

Crews checked the inside of the garage and the nearby upper bedroom for potential victims, and found the home unoccupied.

Within two minutes of the second call, Engine Company 11 was at the scene, quickly followed by the PR&R Mill Park Station 7’s Truck Company crew, and firefighters from Powellhurst Station 29 Engine Company.

While PF&R’s official statement about the fire read, “Cause of homeless camp fire is undetermined at this time,” neighbors said they had a good idea about its source.

From this area, a neighbor sees a missile flying out of the fire, and into his yard.

A next door neighbor said he heard several loud pops. “I looked out, and saw what looked like a charred and smoking butane canister flying up out of the fire, arcing over the street, and landing in our front yard!” he said. “I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed it down.”

Crews laddered up to the roof of the two-story garage, ripping off the shake roof and spraying water into a finished second floor room. Meantime, an up-the-street neighbor, Dolores, told East Portland News, “I heard what seemed like five or six explosions from my place, and wondered why it sounded like a war had broken out on our street.”

On the roof, firefighters spray “Class A Foam” into the attic and bedroom, to quench remaining embers.

Dolores said the “encampment” had originally been situated to the south, at the intersection of SE Harold Street, but had moved north. “It started at the (ODOT freeway property) fence, and spilled a good way into the street.”

The owner of the home with the now-smoldering garage arrived and watched firefighters continue to rip away chunks of roof and underlayment, spraying more Class A foam into the attic and into the room.

Firefighters continue to tear off the roof of this structure, ignited by the transient camp fire across the street.

Asked what she thought of the situation, she said, “Well, [the homeless] have to live somewhere.”

At the end of the street, two men walking to the bus stop said that, on several occasions, they’d smelled what they believed to be drugs being “cooked” inside the makeshift tent. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a drug lab explosion,” said Darriel Browne. “No wonder they all scattered when their camp blew up.”

Neighbors say that they’re relieved that the camp is gone, because when school starts, this street frequently used by children attending Oliver Lent School.

There are no known injuries associated with either the homeless camp fire or the residence blaze – it was a detached garage that burned – so the residents weren’t displaced, Lt. Picard said.

© 2019 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™



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