Tyu Walker lost his home, $600 in savings and his mother’s obituary when his tent in a West Berkeley encampment went up in flames.

Distraught and angry, 44-year-old Walker left the ruins behind and headed to Oakland, where he moved into an RV someone had abandoned along Wood Street. For a while, life was looking up. He started repairing his new home and got a job with a junk removal company.

Then, a few weeks before Christmas, it all burned down again.

Before it was destroyed in a fire three week before Christmas, Tyu Walker sits by his recreational vehicle at a homeless encampment along Wood Street in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

“I was in the RV asleep, and I woke up to a wall of flames,” he said.

Fire is an ever-present danger for the Bay Area’s unhoused residents, and the risk is getting worse as encampments get bigger. Flames sparked by fires started for cooking or warmth can engulf highly combustible wooden shacks, tents and RVs before firefighters arrive. Some of the blazes have damaged nearby houses. Others have killed people.

As the danger grows, fire departments, city workers and local nonprofits are reaching out to unhoused residents about fire safety. But there’s only so much they can do until housing programs get people off the streets.

An RV burns at a homeless camp near W. Hedding St. in San Jose, Calif., on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

“Fire is a pretty big risk to the unsheltered population,” said Pete Stathakos, a fire inspector with the Oakland Fire Department who works with homeless encampments. “I would say it’s probably one of the top three risks that the unsheltered population faces.”

Oakland firefighters responded to 552 encampment fires between January and November 2020, up 15% from the same time period last year. During the last fiscal year, July 2019 through June 2020, San Jose firefighters responded to 1,573 fires related to homeless camps, up 27% from the prior year.

Data from the San Francisco Fire Department show a 55% increase during January through November 2020 compared to the year before — but that’s partly because the department improved its tracking of encampment fires in 2020, according to spokesman Lt. Jonathan Baxter.

At least one unhoused person died of burns and smoke inhalation in Alameda County in 2020, according to Coroner’s Bureau records for the first 10 months of the year. In Santa Clara County, at least three died in fires.

In response, San Francisco firefighters are visiting encampments and handing out “open flame pamphlets” with tips on fire safety. In Oakland, the East Oakland Collective passes out donated fire extinguishers in camps, and Stathakos goes from camp to camp looking for fire code violations.

Pete Stathakos, an inspector with the Oakland Fire Department, disables an extension cord he found stretched across Alameda Avenue through wet gutters at a homeless camp, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Oakland. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

He has yet to see the number of fires go down, but Stathakos thinks his efforts are producing slow progress — even though the unhoused people he meets don’t always trust him or welcome his safety tips.

“We can’t just go and close and remove encampments,” he said. “But educating the unsheltered population of the fire hazards that exist has helped a little bit.”

Since June 1, Oakland encampment fires have disrupted BART service 17 times between the Lake Merritt and Fruitvale stations, and four times near the Coliseum, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison. Fires next to or below BART tracks can fill the area with smoke and force drivers to stop their trains. Flames can damage cables and concrete, and an August fire near the Coliseum damaged an emergency walkway along the BART tracks. But there have been no reports of major damage caused by encampment fires in the past seven months, Allison said.

Fires that can spread quickly to overgrown vegetation are a particular concern. Many of San Jose’s encampments are along the banks of creeks and rivers. “Once a spark hits, it can just quickly grow,” said Erica Ray, a spokeswoman for the San Jose Fire Department.

In October, a fire started in an encampment off Interstate 580 in Oakland quickly spread into surrounding vegetation, threatening a row of homes and a gas station on Quigley Street. When the brush behind 54-year-old Alex Gilmete’s house caught on fire, he ran outside with a garden hose to fight off the flames. Embers were raining down on his roof — and on him, burning his skin. Just as Gilmete was thinking he was going to lose the house, firefighters arrived and put out the blaze.

Oakland firefighters battle a 3-alarm vegetation fire in a homeless encampment off I-580 near 35th Ave in Oakland., Calif., on Friday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

The damage ended up being minimal. Firefighters tore down Gilmete’s fence and chopped a hole through the wall of his backyard in-law unit, which had caught fire. And his patio furniture is dotted with burn holes from falling embers. But it could have been much worse — and Gilmete fears it will be next time.

Gilmete said he has compassion for his unhoused neighbors, but he can’t risk another fire. He plans to call the police if he sees people camping in the brush near his house again.

“What’s happening now is not working,” he said, “and I think we have to find some solution that’s reasonable.”

Along Oakland’s East 12th Street, where a large community of people lives in makeshift shacks, tents and cars, Stathakos estimates his department has responded to more than 100 encampment fires in the past two years. Though there’s a fire station just seven blocks from the camp, the flames spread so fast that by the time a truck arrives, any dwelling on fire is likely to be destroyed.

Leslie Mu–ñoz stands by his charred shelter, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at a homeless encampment on East 12th Street in Oakland, Calif., after it was destroyed along with others in a fire. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“That’s the type of thing you expect, living on the streets. When’s the next hit coming?” said 30-year-old Leslie Muñoz, who had been staying with a friend in a shack made uninhabitable by a December fire.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon days after that blaze, a few people were starting to rebuild. José Jamez, 43, was nailing boards together into walls, vowing to make an even bigger shelter than the one that burned down.

Walker has a similar attitude. After losing his home, clothes, driver’s license and the key to his work truck in the December RV fire in West Oakland, he moved into a makeshift shelter near the Sea Breeze market in Berkeley.

“As long as I’m OK,” he said, “What did they really burn up that I can’t get over again?”

OAKLAND, CA. – DEC. 23: Jose Jamez begins rebuilding his shelter, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at a homeless encampment on East 12th Street in in Oakland, Calif., after it was destroyed along with others one week before. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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