san diego fire
San Diego fire crews put out a fire on Fairmount Avenue near Aldine Drive on Oct.15, 2019. Fire officials said it started near a homeless encampment.(Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Fire incident calls tied to homelessness are on the rise in San Diego. Last year, they made up nearly 13% of all fire-related calls.

“We’re addressing it as best we can,” said Assistant Fire Chief Chris Webber, who added that the growing homeless problem is “no secret.”

While the number of all fire calls has fluctuated over the past five years, fire calls that mentioned the homeless have steadily increased.

Why this matters

As San Diego grapples with a large, unsheltered homeless population, some turn to canyons and parks for a place to live. Many of those areas are at the highest risk for fire in the city, putting nearby homes and structures at risk.

In 2018, they totaled about 10% of all fire calls. That was also the year Webber issued an August memo to fire personnel ordering that fire calls with a possible homeless connection be tracked with keywords and other details so the department could work more closely with police to prevent wildfires that threaten homes and other structures.

He said the memo was prompted by rising concerns about an increase in fires connected to homeless encampments and questions — internally and from the media — about how many fires were related to the growing homeless problem.

San Diego fire calls and the homeless, 2015-2019

Year Calls tied to homeless All fire calls Percent tied to homeless
2015 185 4,223 4.38%
2016 286 4,434 6.45%
2017 316 4,667 6.77%
2018 480 4,689 10.24%
2019 572 4,505 12.70%

Source: San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

Making direct comparisons about the fire calls in recent years is difficult because of the 2018 change. The data includes all fire calls handled by the department, excluding incidents such as medical aid responses and cliff rescues.

“We wanted to gather some data to see the frequency of these things and the relationships of any incidents that have to do with homelessness or encampments,” said Webber, who oversees the department’s emergency operations.

He acknowledged the data does not necessarily mean the fires were started by homeless people. Some calls may have been false alarms or referred to fires that ignited near a homeless encampment. With the vast majority of fires, Webber said, the cause is undetermined.

The department has used the new data to map spots where fires linked to homelessness occur. Balboa Park, the East Village and Sherman Heights are among the places where clusters of incidents have been found.

Webber said the city has used the data to better coordinate resources to help the homeless. It also has allowed city agencies that provide homeless services to react in real time to fire incidents.

RELATED: Fire risks tied to homelessness leave residents on edge

The dispatch data also gives a snapshot of city resources dedicated to combating fire risks related to the homeless, some of whom live in San Diego’s most at-risk fire areas, including brush-filled canyons and parks.

“I’m very concerned,” said Lauren Williams, after reviewing the data inewsource obtained through a public records request. Williams is a block captain for Presidio Hills and is worried about safety issues tied to homeless people living year-round in Presidio Park.

“It really is scary. We’re so close to the park. If that park catches fire, all of our homes around that park will catch fire,” she said.

City officials have struggled to reduce San Diego’s homeless numbers and manage public concern over the issue. Last month, the city launched a streamlined way to report homeless encampments through its app for reporting problems, Get It Done.

Brian Gruters is an associate director at PATH, a nonprofit working to end homelessness in San Diego. He has worked to help get homeless people living in the canyons into housing and said homeowners need to be understanding.

“Fire risk is fire risk,” Gruters said, pointing out that anyone smoking in the woods can create fire dangers whether or not they’re homeless.

“I think the challenge is striking a balance between enforcement, which I think we do need to prevent fires and Hep A and things like that, and the type of approach that helps people get into housing,” he said.

A San Diego firefighter works to mop up a fire near Fairmount Avenue and Aldine Drive on Oct. 15, 2019. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Last year, several small fires linked to the homeless threatened San Diego neighborhoods — from a brush fire in October near Talmadge and Kensington to a canyon fire in July in Skyline to an April blaze that homeless people trying to keep warm started inside a section of the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park.

Battling fire risks connected to the homeless is an increasing issue countywide, said Darren Hall, fire technology program director for San Diego Miramar College.

One challenge is that some homeless people living in fire-prone areas aren’t willing to accept assistance, said Hall, who also is a fire captain in Coronado.

“So they’ve kind of staked out an area that they call theirs, and they turn around and go right back into it as soon as they’re pushed out by law enforcement,” Hall said.

In 2019, an annual count identified 5,082 homeless in San Diego, although many consider that number an undercount. More than half were unsheltered. San Diego’s canyons, where fire risk can be the greatest, are among the most challenging areas to do the count.

The next homeless count is scheduled for Jan. 23.

Mary Plummer is a former editor and investigative reporter for inewsource. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of California’s deadliest wildfires and mass shootings, to intensive beat reporting. Her investigations have uncovered failings in the state prison system...