Emergency cleanup underway following second fire at homeless camp

City cleanup crews spent the day clearing out a homeless camp in Northeast Austin. 

The camp sits under a bridge at the intersection of U.S. 183 and Cameron Road. 

After two fires at the camp, the Texas Department of Transportation needed to get an inspector in there to assess the damage to the bridge, but they couldn't even do that because of all the stuff in the way.

Workers with Austin Resource Recovery spent Friday picking up belongings, trash, even bicycles and wheelbarrows from underneath the bridge. 

“This is one of those sites that we discovered that we didn't know a whole lot about and then, once we learned more about it in terms of the scale and the level of debris there, we moved in to do an assessment,” said Ken Snipes, director of Austin Resource Recovery.   

They found out about the homeless camp when Austin firefighters responded to a fire there. At that time, the belongings and debris stacked under the bridge was three football fields long. 

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“One of the things that we learned after we took a look at the site is that there were quite a few tires there, and tires are a major concern for us because if they burn they are notoriously difficult to extinguish,” Snipes said.  

After a second fire sparked at the same camp in the same month, Austin Resource Recovery stepped in for an emergency cleanup operation. 

“They just set us back how much? We have to start all over again. They just set us way back,” said Kathryn “Ruby Red” Juarez, who has lived at the camp for several years. 

“It's for the safety of everyone involved, including the folks that live there,” Snipes said. 

Two people were injured in the second fire. Investigators believe it started with a cooking fire or a fire to keep warm, but people at the camp think it was a targeted attack. “Those are not our fires. They were set with gas and cloth, that's a Molotov cocktail. They did it intentionally because they want us out of there,” said Juarez.

Juarez said she was told she had until Monday before cleaning crews stepped in and believe the surprise operation creates its own kind of safety concern. 

“They said we have till Monday. Why are they throwing our stuff away? It's going to be 35 degrees tonight. We have no way to stay warm. Somebody could die. There are people down there with disabilities, on checks, and there are sick people that live down there. We’ve been down there for eight years and now they have nowhere to go tonight. There are no blankets, we're going to freeze,” Juarez said.  

“Our goal is not to take any of those things that would be for the protection of someone. Right now, it's removing those things that would be hazardous,” said Snipes.  

Austin Resource Recovery said major operations like this can be somewhat dangerous because workers never know what they're going to find. 

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Even after spending all of Friday clearing out what they could, the job is far from over. 

“That work was pretty extensive and it's going to take about a week to clean that area up,” Snipes said.  

TxDOT said they were able to get bridge inspectors out there again Friday and they did not find any structural damage to the bridge.