Fire chiefs call on El Paso County commissioners to enforce codes to reduce fires at homeless camps

The number of fires started at homeless camps in El Paso County is growing, prompting several area fire chiefs to ask for help from county commissioners this week.

Stratmoor Hills Fire Chief Shawn Bittle said fires ignited at homeless camps pose the biggest threat to public safety he’s experienced in his career.

Bittle said a fire started in one camp earlier this month and quickly spread to another one nearby. 

"Due to the overcrowding of abandoned vehicles, RVs, and illegally constructed shanties combined with large piles of flammable debris and countless improperly stored and discarded propane tanks, the fire grew rapidly and endangered many homes surrounding the fire," Bittle said.

He said the fire was on privately owned property in the middle of a residential neighborhood where the landowner has allowed unsheltered people to camp. According to Bittle, law enforcement has been dispatched there nearly 70 times. He said his fire district has responded to the camp more than three dozen times in the last two years.

The El Paso County Fire Chief's Council wants to work with commissioners to improve laws and codes about where people without shelter can set up camp. 

Stratmoor Hill Fire Chief Shawn Bittle addresses El Paso County Commissioners about the risk fires in homeless camps pose to the community.

"[We are] very concerned that our next major county fire conflagration will start from another unregulated and unsafe homeless camp," Bittle told commissioners. "Lives and homes will be lost, and then it will be too late." 

He said his agency does not have the authority to draft or enforce laws, adding that he's willing to do "whatever it takes to keep El Paso County and our community and our citizens safe."

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. said he agrees with Bittle, as did the rest of the commission.

"We need everybody's help to get the word out to combat this," Gonzalez said. "We've seen it — the city, the county — a lot of times we do a clean up with [the] homeless and they go from the county to the city and when we do another clean up there, they come right back to us."

Ultimately, though, Gonzalez said cleaning up the camps is "the right thing to do."

"We have to protect people's lives and property," he said.

Commissioners said they plan to work with Bittle and his colleagues to find a solution. The proposed budget for El Paso County for 2023 identified funds to clean up homeless camps as a "critical need." If it's approved, $150,000 would be allocated to clean up.