Lessons learned from Modesto homeless camp fire
Investigators believe the April 12 fire at Modesto’s homeless camp started in a tent that had two propane camp stoves, a propane heater and a gas-powered generator.
They said the early-morning fire destroyed three tents and damaged two, though a camp official said the damaged tents could not be repaired. There were no reports of injuries, but five camp residents were displaced.
The fire was at the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter, the roughly 285-tent camp underneath the Ninth Street Bridge in the Tuolumne River Regional Park’s Gateway Parcel. Modesto and Stanislaus County opened it in late February. About 350 to 400 people live there.
The city and county have taken steps to improve safety since the fire, including the more frequent removal of what the camp’s operations manager called rubbish. Officials also are considering not allowing residents to keep propane camp stoves and similar items in their tents, or providing them with a storage area where they can keep these items.
Residents can store but not use these items in their tents. They are not allowed to have open flames in the 10-foot-by-10-foot, fire-resistant tents, made of polyester and polyethylene.
The camp has two designated cooking areas where residents can use their stoves, grills and barbecues.
The Stanislaus Regional Fire Investigation Unit released the results of its probe Thursday. Lt. Dave Hutchinson, the unit’s commander, said investigators narrowed the source of the fire to two neighboring tents and believe it started in the one with the stoves, heater and generator.
Hutchinson said there was no evidence the fire was intentionally set, and its cause has been classified as undetermined. He said that is because investigators could not determine the fire’s specific ignition source, such as the generator or the heater.
Hutchinson said there also was no witnesses to the start of the fire. The person assigned to the tent had not been seen in the days before the fire.
The blaze started about 3:20 a.m. at the north end of the camp. Several camp residents described a chaotic scene as panicked residents tried to flee. The tents are tightly spaced in rows in the camp.
Stanislaus County Behavioral Heath and Recovery Services general manager Doug Holcomb, who started as the camp’s operations manager about three weeks ago, said that since the fire, officials have added two fire extinguishers to the golf cart used by staff and security guards.
That’s in addition to the two fire extinguishers in the camp’s office trailer. But that is locked at night, including during the fire, though the security guards have keys to the trailer.
Maps also have been provided to residents showing them where to go during a fire. The camp is ringed by a temporary chain-link fence. But the camp was designed to be large enough to provide safe places within its boundaries for residents to go.
Holcomb said officials also have stepped up the removal of rubbish, including discarded bicycle parts, broken strollers and abandoned clothing. Camp residents are required to keep all of their belongings in their tents, though Holcomb said enforcing that has been a work in progress.
He said 7,300 pounds of rubbish were removed in cleanups on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. He said this reduces potential hazards and what can burn. Officials work with residents who don’t have room in their tents for all of their belongings, he said.
One camp resident, who declined to give her name, said Friday that officials have been good about that. She said they came through the row of tents where she lives this week removing discarded items but let people store essentials outside their tents as long as they keep the area neat and clean.
“I think they are doing OK,” the woman said as she sat outside the entrance of her tent washing dishes in a plastic tub. She said officials are letting her store the plastic tub and a plastic garbage can outside her tent.
But she wishes residents had access to fire extinguishers or at least buckets of water. “We definitely need something, just in case,” she said. “It was really scary,” she said about the fire.
That is something officials have considered. But Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst said he wants residents to focus on getting out of harm’s way. “The most important thing we stress with fire is to get out and get to safety,” he said. “We will put the fire out.”
Holcomb said officials continue to talk about whether to ban residents from storing heaters, propane stoves and similar equipment in their tents. He said that has been a difficult discussion because officials have to consider residents’ right to their belongings and their need to prepare their food.
Holcomb said about 10 to 20 percent of the residents use the two cooking areas, using their own equipment or that provided by the camp. He added that officials are re-emphasizing the rules about no open flames and the use of this equipment in tents.
Holcomb said he also plans to suggest during an upcoming city-county camp meeting that officials bring in a shipping container or storage sheds to store residents’ cooking equipment and similar items when they are not using them.