The remains of a fire at the Field homeless encampment on Saturday. Photo via Cory Potts.

Fire Devours Three Tents At the Field; Fast-Thinking Campers Contain Blaze

Homeless campers have been asking Seattle for fire extinguishers for months.

Before dawn on Saturday morning, Jason Sanders was at home in his tent in the Field, a homeless encampment of dozens of tents in the industrial district southeast of downtown Seattle. The 41-year-old unemployed construction worker says he’d just returned from a nearby convenience store when he heard someone shout, “Everybody get out, that tent’s on fire!” Sanders ducked outside, pausing to tie the entrance to his tent closed against unwanted visitors, then rushed toward the commotion.

Three tents were on fire “uncontrollably,” he recalls. Six or seven feet away from them was the big community tent where residents hang out or, if they have nowhere else to go, sleep. Sanders’ first thought: if the fire jumped to the community tent, it could keep spreading until it devoured his home, too.

After checking to make sure there wasn’t a candle or cooking fire burning inside the communal tent, Sanders and another man started pulling stakes out of the ground to collapse the communal tent so it woud be less of a target for the nearby heat and flames. At 6:29 a.m. the fire department showed up and doused the flames. No one was injured, according to a Seattle Fire Department spokesperson.

Viewed Saturday evening, the burn site was a mess of charred junk covered in rats, whose scurrying bodies in the dim streetlamp light gave the appearance of roiling lice. According to Cory Potts, an activist who works with the camp, on Sunday “six non-residents came and with the permission of the residents, cleaned out the debris and erected a community tent equipped with a stove and fire extinguisher.” He says trash from the fire was bagged and placed by the sidewalk for pickup.

“This is fire number three in the last three months,” says Sanders. The first, he says, was of unknown origin, while the second was a consequence of a camper burning trash inside her tent.

Reavy Washington, 56, says he’s been asking the city and aid agencies for fire extinguishers for months. Speaking in September during public comment at the Seattle City Council’s Human Services and Public Health committee under the name “Resident One,” Washington asked for fire extinguishers, along with other supplies including sharps containers and first aid kits. “It becomes a safety hazard if a fire should break out, for instance, and there’s not a fire extinguisher,” he said. “You’re not providing the adequate stuff that we need.”

He says Seattle/King County Public Health brought four extinguishers before Thanksgiving; now there’s only one left. Had more been available, Washington says, campers would have been able to extinguish the fire themselves instead of just containing it until the fire department arrived.

“Because we’re homeless people, [authorities] don’t think we have the right to defend ourselves from fire,” he says. “Had somebody died, they would have blamed us.”