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Home / Articles / Views / Uncensored /  A burning issue
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Wednesday, November 24,2010

A burning issue

By Pamela White

 

It’s been almost a month since fire consumed about 85 acres up Boulder Canyon. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle says the exact cause is still unknown.

 

“It could have been from a cigarette. It could have been from a campfire. There weren’t any weather activities, and we don’t have enough information to tie it to a single individual or a single campsite,” Pelle told Boulder Weekly on Monday.

The Dome fire, which was reported at about 8:10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 29, was so close to town that some Boulder residents found themselves under evacuation orders. Fortunately, the fire was largely contained by the following Sunday. No homes were destroyed.

Had conditions been different, and had firefighters’ response been slower or less effective, parts of the city — particularly the area west of 7th Street between North Street and Canyon Boulevard — might have been lost. People and pets might have been killed.

The irony is, of course, that this fire, which could have destroyed so many homes, was probably started by people who have no homes.

Although the direct cause of the blaze is unknown, what’s clear is that it began in an area used by the homeless for camping.

That’s an interesting coincidence given that city residents engaged this year in a long discussion about homeless people and camping. The recent debate didn’t focus on camping in the mountains west of town; instead, it revolved around sleeping in public within the city itself.

The issue came to the fore after two homeless men were convicted and fined for “camping” in the city, just two of more than 1,600 tickets issued by city cops over the past four years. City ordinance defines camping as sleeping outdoors with shelter, including a blanket or sleeping bag.

Some people felt it was grossly unfair for a government body to fine those with no money or property for doing what anyone with a human body must do — sleep. But in the end, the Boulder City Council decided to continue enforcing its “camping” ban.

Fast forward to the end of October.

Boulder’s homeless shelter was open. It opens on Oct. 15 of every year and provides shelter, showers and meals to about 160 adults every day. But that’s only about 25 percent of the city’s homeless population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. So where do the rest go?

Some find shelter in local churches.

Some sleep under bridges, in parks and under train cars, where they are exposed to the risk of being ticketed and fined. Others head up into the canyons, where they eat, drink, urinate, defecate, smoke cigarettes to keep themselves going, and light fires to stay warm. Whoever started the Dome fire wasn’t trying to burn anything down. He or she was probably just trying to wake up or get warm.

I thought when the Dome fire occurred that the city would be spurred into again reconsidering its “camping” ordinance. So far, it seems no one wants to draw a line between that ordinance and the fact that some homeless folks choose to camp in the mountains to avoid being ticketed. But that hasn’t happened.

Of course, fire danger isn’t the only concern when it comes to homeless people camping in the mountains. There’s also the impact on the land to consider. It’s fine if bears shit in the woods, but when dozens of people flock to the same area every day for months to do the same thing, we see an increase in bacteria in the creeks that flow through these canyons. And then there’s the risk that homeless people face of dying from hypothermia or becoming the victim of a crime.

I don’t know how to solve homelessness, but I do know that Boulder’s ordinance merely shifts the problem from being a very public one right before our eyes to being one that hides in the hills.

If anyone had been killed in the Dome fire or if hundreds of homes had been lost, we’d probably hear an outcry right now from concerned citizens who want police to take a hard line against the homeless, by rooting them out of the foothills, too. But that’s not a solution, either. People can’t just disappear.

They have to be somewhere.

I’m not offering a solution. I’m simply asking a question and hoping you’ll mull it over while you are sitting in your nice, warm house, letting your Thanksgiving turkey digest. If we look at the Dome fire as a warning, then shouldn’t we find a better way to deal with this problem before something truly tragic occurs?

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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