Stephen Ellison

Risks and Benefits to Rising Number of Homeless Fires in San Jose

San Jose fire crews are working a rising number of fires near or inside homeless encampments, and there's a growing concern among firefighters about the added risks these types of blazes pose.

In the past week alone, the department said it has battled at least five fires near homeless encampments.

"I would say we laid a lot of mileage on San Jose fire vehicles on these trails," said Arlen Summer, wildland officer for the San Jose Fire Department.

The most recent homeless fire last week started when a vehicle became stuck in a creek and screeching tires threw up sparks. It came close to burning some businesses, Summer said.

He said most times campers use fires for cooking or keeping people warm.

But for first responders, who are summoned when the blazes spread out of control, there are unusual risks.

"With the homeless population, there are potentially propane tanks, mattresses, human waste that is out there," fire Capt. Christopher Salcido said.

In some cases, firefighters may also have to contend with booby traps.

Meanwhile, with the risks there could also come benefits. As city staff continues to tally the total number of homeless fires this year and millions of dollars in resources and time they are costing, the fire department has made a change.

"The San Jose Fire Department has added a new metric in our data collection," Salcido said.

Arlen explained: "There’s a checkbox that says, 'Was this event related to a homeless incident?' It gives us the opportunity to start tracking some good information."

It's information City Hall can use to help address the city’s growing homeless problem.

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