Long tolerant of those who are homeless, west-side Colorado Springs residents are becoming increasingly fearful because of recent fires from makeshift camps that they say have threatened residences and businesses.
At a packed meeting Thursday night organized by the Organization of Westside Neighbors, several residents called on city and county officials to tighten enforcement on illegal campfires that homeless people say they need to keep warm. The concerns come amid a rise in homelessness and several recent fires beneath bridges and across open spaces.
"Why aren't we enforcing those basic laws?" said David Leinweber, owner and president of Angler's Covey, to a crowd of about 125 people at the Westside Community Center. "We're reverting back to the frontier days."
On Jan. 5, Leinweber watched 20-foot flames shoot out of a homeless campsite at the 21st Street bridge and up nearby Fountain Creek's banks. CenturyLink confirmed the blaze damaged two fiber cables that took a day and a half to repair.
Leinweber said he extinguished a smaller campfire on the other side of the creek to protect his business. The blaze was in a primitive fire ring near propane tanks.
"It freaked me out," he said.
Illegal fires attributed to homeless camps are up "drastically" in Colorado Springs, straining firefighters' resources and prompting concerns during an abnormally warm, dry winter, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Ted Collas said earlier Thursday at a news conference.
The number of illegal fires leapt from 186 in 2016 to 275 last year. Already in 2018, 14 have been reported.
Grass fires that started from homeless camps jumped from 26 in 2014 to 94 in 2016, the Fire Department said. And 89 more were attributed to homeless campsites last year through Dec. 1.
"We understand that these people are living in adverse conditions, and they have needs in their own lives," Collas said. "But those needs have to be in compliance with the codes that keep our whole community safe."
The city's code prohibits fires not contained in a permanent fixture such as a metal ring from being larger than 3 feet wide, higher than 2 feet or within 25 feet of combustibles, such as a homes, tents, trees, bushes or trash.
Fires cannot be unattended - such as while someone sleeps - and cannot burn fuels other than wood or charcoal. A means of extinguishing the fire must be available.
Firefighters are working with the Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team to educate people experiencing homelessness about how to safely and legally light fires, Collas said.
City Council President Richard Skorman apologized to west-side residents at the community center meeting for the 21st Street blaze and vowed that "if we are told about a fire, we're going to go and tell them to put it out."
"We're worried about it, too," Skorman said. "We are going to enforce the fire ordinances that are in place."
Homeless for about two years, Kurt Haehl, 42, spoke at the meeting, saying the fires are needed to stay warm because traveling to one of the city's shelters from the west side is difficult. Usually when people make the trip, the shelters are full due to a shortage in shelter beds and affordable housing, he said.
The Gazette's Ellie Mulder contributed to this story.