SEATTLE — Jennifer Coats looked out the window of her north Seattle townhouse one night in November and spotted a man inside a shelter made out of an over-sized sandwich board sign. She said he began lighting little fires inside his shelter and that bothered her.
“I saw flame, a little flame and a bigger flame,” said Coats. The shelter and little fires were between the side walk and the curb, on public property at the corner of 98th Street and Aurora Avenue North.
She did what most people would do.
“He was here for at least an hour and lit several fires, the fires were not controlled, I got concerned and called 911," she said.
What happened next surprised her.
The initial 911 operator dealt with police emergencies, so she transferred the call to member of the Seattle Fire Department.
“They lit something and there's a fire going in there,” Coats is heard on the 911 call. The fire dispatcher then says, “they’re probably cooking something, the city, they’re allowing cooking fires.”
The dispatcher then asks Coats, “it’s just a small fire inside the shelter, is that what you see?”
Hesitating, Coats answers, “yeah."
The dispatcher responds saying, “yeah, there is nothing we could do. As long as they are cooking food, they could have that."
Coats said she didn’t know if the person was cooking or not, but said "yes" anyway. She then questioned the dispatcher.
“It seems like a fire hazard, on a residential street,” Coats is heard on the 911 call.
The dispatcher says, “yeah, I don’t make the rules."
The fire department never arrived.
"I was shocked that the question was even asked, because I didn't think lighting a fire on a residential street was legal at all," Coats said.
Under the city’s fire code, it’s not.
The fire did not meet the requirements of an allowed “recreational fire." A fire spokesman said fires like the one Coats reported would be classified as a recreational fire. One requirement for a legal recreational fire is that it’s “not being conducted on public property, where it’s prohibited."
Recreational fires on public property are only allowed in designated fire pits in parks.
When KOMO News brought the 911 call to the department's attention, we asked spokesperson, Hilton Almond, if there was a change in SFD policy involving fires involving homeless campers. The city has shown a tendency to allow unsanctioned homeless camps and the fires campers create to exist.
“In this particular instance, firefighters should have been dispatched to the incident location, and if the fire did not meet the fire code, then it should have been extinguished,” Almond said in an email response.
“Once you loosen the rules in one area, it kind of loosens them up everywhere,” said David Preston, whose Facebook page, Safe Seattle, first posted the 911 call. The founder of the watchdog group said there’s too much confusion regarding homeless camp fires.
“These fires are in industrial areas of the city, in residential areas of the city and the fire department and the police just don't know how to respond to all those fires,” Preston said.
A year ago, when the safety of firefighters entering unsanctioned homeless camps became a front and center issue, Seattle Fire Fighters Union President Kenny Stuart said members often face hazards that pose a threat to firefighters.
We asked him to comment on the 911 call, he declined saying firefighters will respond to any circumstance and homeless camps are no different.
He did say members are still working with the department on how to combat hazards in the camps.
“We need to have a clear direction from our elected officials regarding hazards, such as fires in the unauthorized encampments,” Stuart said this week.
Then you have campers like Raphael, who came to Seattle from Georgia three years ago and has been living in camps ever since.
“I’m going to do a fire pretty much everyday,” said Raphael, standing over a fire in his camp along I-5 in the SODO neighborhood.
He has built a fire pit away from tents and flammable objects. He said he knows how to make a safe fire and was visited by the fire department last summer.
“The guy saw that I had everything, I had the water, I had the gravel, had the dirt, he left me alone about it,” Raphael said.
He knows his fire is not legal, but like many during the cold, wet winter, he said he needs his fire to cook and stay warm.
“A lot of us are just doing the best that we can, just let us live,” he said.
Almond said the department has taken steps to make sure all members are following “proper procedures on the subject of outdoor burning."