Pendleton firefighters and residents on Northeast Ellis Place halted a grass fire that spread from a homeless camp to threaten homes and families Wednesday evening.
“We were a community working hard together last night,” resident Luke Britt said.
Emergency dispatchers received 911 calls minutes after 7 p.m. Wednesday reporting a fire on the north side of the Umatilla River near the Brooke RV Park, 5 N.E. Eighth St. The Pendleton Fire Department responded, along with city police, Umatilla Tribal Fire Department and Pilot Rock and East Umatilla County fire districts.
The blaze was fast moving, according to the report from Pendleton fire, and headed west and up the hill toward several homes. The steep terrain, limited access and the darkness made for a difficult attack, Pendleton fire Capt. Steve Brost stated in the report, but he credited “great communication and cooperation” between the responding agencies for getting the fire under control without anyone suffering injuries.
Britt recalled racing home to his wife and children from the other side of town when he heard about the fire, but Pendleton police stopped him at the intersection of Main Street because Ellis is so narrow. He said he sprinted the rest of the way home to find firefighters pushing down the blaze.
The fire rekindled Thursday around 1 a.m. Britt said the flames reached 20 feet high and licked the leaves on the tree at the south edge of his property. He said he and a neighbor used garden hoses to take on the fire, then Pendleton firefighters drenched the flames.
A crew stayed at the site all night and Thursday morning at 10:20 again knocked down another rekindled fire.
The burn scorched about 8 acres and the cause is under investigation, Pendleton fire reported, but the likely origin was a homeless camp just west of the recreational vehicle park and near the banks of the Umatilla River.
Fire blackened much of the camp, but there was no obvious fire pit. Signs at the site Thursday morning pointed to a fast getaway — occupants left behind melted nylon tents and plastic tarps and charred tennis shoes. Someone also left dirty syringes and needles near the main portion of the camp.
Britt said he told the city police about the camp, and other residents said police rousted the campers some weeks ago. Once the hullabaloo died down, they returned.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said police only have so much authority to deal with activities the homeless engage in, and recent developments in case law makes it tougher to prohibit people from resting and camping in public spaces. Police can break up a camp, but the occupants set up elsewhere.
“All we’re really doing is displacing the problem,” Roberts said.
Britt said he wants to see the Pendleton Fire Department conduct more burns in grassy areas to limit the potential for big fires, or have the goats the city uses to eat the underbrush along the Umatilla River clear off hillsides.
“There’s 10 times the volume of food up here,” he said.
Britt also said this fire could be a catalyst for a change in dealing with the homeless population.
“We have to as a community decide how we’re going to help with homelessness,” he said.
The Pendleton police chief agreed.
“There needs to be something innovative and collaborative that’s going to get to the root of the homeless issue,” he said. “It’s going to have be a community-wide approach.”