Homeless camp in estuary burns; Gov. criticized for letting it happen

    Homeless camp in estuary burns; Gov. criticized for letting it happen (KOMO photo)

    A fire Thursday night engulfed a portion of a sprawling homeless camp along SR 509 in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. Firefighters made quick work putting out the fire that was just feet from cars traveling at highway speeds.

    Nobody was injured but the fire represents an on-going issue with fires in encampments on state highway right-of-ways. The Seattle Fire Department did not send out investigators to determine the cause of the fire says SFD spokesperson Kristin Tinsley.

    But street campers and RV’ers know what typically follows a prominent fire at an encampment is a sweep of the tents and RVs.

    “It’s not the situation I want to be in, but it’s what I’m faced with right now,” says Robert Jarrett. He and his girlfriend Morgan Sandis live in a RV about 100 yards away from the burned camp, in the middle of a string of a dozen RVs parked along the side of the road.

    On Jan. 14, that same area was cleared of RVs by Seattle Police while Seattle Public Works picked up garbage in a portion of the camp.

    Stephan Curtis, who works in a shipping yard nearby told us then he expected the RVs and tents to return.

    “They'll tag them, they'll leave, seems like two-to-three days max, they are right back in the same old spot,” Curtis said. He was right.

    Not only was the latest fire located close to the highway, it’s also on the edge of an estuary that’s a part of the Duwamish River.

    “There are bird nesting, water from the tides flows in and out,” says John Talmadge who works nearby. “I drive by this every single day and it’s frustrating to see the lack of action to clean it up”.

    Scattered through the estuary are current and abandoned camps and garbage from the camps everywhere in the wetlands.

    “When you've got a governor who's running for president under the environment and he allows this in his own back yard, how do you make sense of that?” says Talmadge.

    It’s state land but the state has given it’s authority to manage and police the camps on it’s right-of-way to the City of Seattle.

    At a hearing of the State Senate Transportation Committee in February, lawmakers complained to the interim director of the Human Services Department for the City of Seattle about a "slow response" to clearing camps close to state highways.

    “At some point we got to step up and man up and get it done,” said State Senator Curtis King.

    But currently, the legislature’s answer is to add more money to the Washington State Department of Transportation budget for more trucks and maintenance workers to clear homeless camp garbage and debris. The City of Seattle will still take the lead on when and which camps will be cleared.

    Robert and Morgan are prepared to move again, as they have been doing throughout South Seattle for several years.

    “These RVs are really old, not all of the run but they are our homes for now, they are our stability, they are all we have,” says Robert.

    “Moving us around and hiding us in the corner isn't going to make us disappear, we need help,” says Morgan.

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