AUSTIN, Texas - The Austin Fire Department responds to calls at homeless encampments 5 to 10 times a day, an added effort as firefighters deal with an uptick in fire calls due to recent dry weather conditions.
Monday, July 31, Austin fire crews were extremely busy fighting three brush fires. Two of those brush fires were confirmed to have been started in Southeast Austin at homeless encampments.
"Occurred in homeless camps where the fire started within the homeless camps and then spread outside the homeless camps," said Division Chief Thayer Smith.
Smith says it is not uncommon for AFD to respond to calls at homeless encampments. In fact, he says it is standard for firefighters to visit encampments on a daily basis.
"We go to homeless camps probably five, 10 times a day conservatively. People call in for ordinance enforcement, so it's really nothing out of the ordinary. It's just now that everything around them is dried out, we're starting to see more of the fires that are exacerbated by the conditions," he said.
Smith says this weather has dried out the grass and the trees which is causing an extreme fire danger, so fires are more of a threat as the homeless move deeper into the wildlands area to seek recovery from the heat.
However, the fire threat is not just in encampments. The threat is evident throughout the city. Recently, AFD has seen an uptick in calls.
"It is going to get worse day by day. We're actually to the point now that we're very concerned. We moved into the very high danger category," said Smith.
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As a result, AFD has decided to staff four extra brush trucks.
"This is a way for that brush truck to already be staffed and be available regardless of whether it's sitting next to the engine that it normally is or not. It's ready to go. A rapid response to get ahead of these grassfires and hopefully get them knocked out before they grow larger," said Smith.
As for the ongoing threat of homeless encampment fires, Smith says the department works closely with the city’s homeless strategy division team to identify the dangerous encampments.
"Every week, if not every day, [APD is] sending that information to our captain, who is on the homeless strategy team to prioritize these cleanups that they do," said Smith.
The city of Austin sent the following statement to FOX 7 Austin about the response to homeless encampment fires:
"Austin Fire Department regularly responds to reports of smoke and/or fire across the community. Some of these reports results in Austin Fire Department responding to encampments of people experiencing homelessness, where Austin Fire Department enforces relevant codes and extinguishes fires as appropriate. Concerns of fire risk should be reported to the Austin Fire Department by calling 9-1-1.
Austin Fire Department (AFD) is an active partner in the City’s cross-departmental Homeless Encampment Management team, where it shares information about call volume and high-risk locations. AFD and other City-supported outreach teams also work in the field to provide ongoing education about fire safety and fire risk mitigation, stressing the risks associated with dry grass and uncontained fires.
The City of Austin is actively engaged in efforts to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. The City supports a broad range of services to reduce unsheltered homelessness, from long-term housing to additional shelter programs like those recently approved at the Marshalling Yard and the former Salvation Army facility downtown.
As stated in the May 12, 2023, memorandum from Interim City Manager Garza, the City is working to immediately establish temporary sheltering facilities, in addition to expanding capacity at current shelters and investing in multiple housing projects."