Wash. propane explosion highlights challenges of homeless camp fires

Firefighters had difficulty accessing the camp in a wooded area after several small propane tanks exploded

David Rasbach
The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The cause of Sunday evening’s Barkley neighborhood homeless encampment fire, which caused several small propane tanks to explode and injured one man, is still under investigation, Bellingham Fire Department Captain Dave Pethick reported.

The Bellingham Police Department issued a community alert at approximately 7:45 p.m. Feb. 17 asking people to avoid a wooded area near Brandywine Way and Barkley Boulevard after several propane tanks in the area exploded.

The Bellingham Fire Department later tweeted at 8:27 p.m. that crews had just finished cleaning up a homeless encampment fire in the area and that some small propane tanks had exploded.

The man who was transported to the hospital suffered minor injuries, Pethick told The Bellingham Herald in an email, but the camp itself was mostly destroyed.

“The biggest challenge with these homeless camps is access,” Pethick told The Herald. “Many times we can spot the smoke and the fire but are unsure how to best get to it. Often times we look at online maps of the area to see if we can find any trails with access. Many of these camps are several hundred feet off the main trails and hidden from public view.”

Bellingham Fire and North Whatcom Fire and Rescue each initially sent an engine to the fire, Pethick reported, though two more engines were dispatched once access to the camp was found to be difficult.

Cascade Natural Gas and pipeline operators also were notified as a precaution, Pethick wrote, after initial reports were concerned that a pipeline in the area may have been involved.

Though several small explosions were reported, Pethick wrote that he did not know exactly how many small propane bottles exploded or if any others were exposed.

“When homeless camps catch on fire they can produce lots of black smoke,” Pethick wrote. “This is created when things like tents, tarps, and sleeping bags catch fire. Oil-based products produce dark smoke when they burn. This large volume of smoke can be scary, but the fires burn themselves out relatively quickly as the material is consumed quickly.”

Besides injury, one of the biggest concerns from homeless-camp fires, especially during the summer, Pethick wrote, is flames spreading to surrounding vegetation. To help prevent that, area departments work with the Department of Natural Resources to make sure fires in wooded areas are properly extinguished.


©2020 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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