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Despite wide-open camping, reassurances provided about hillside fire danger

On the first day of the Waldo Canyon Fire, June 23, 2012, looking west from Highway 24, the smoke billows high above the hills. The blaze would go on to burn more than 18,000 acres, kill two people and destroy or damage nearly 400 homes. All investigators have ever publicly stated about how the fire started is that it was "human-caused."
Westside Pioneer file photo
Are we safe from fire in the hills above the Westside?
       No one can say for certain - and it's only been four years since the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire, whose perpetrator has never been learned.
       There's also the reality that hundreds of transients are camping all over the area - an illegal practice that goes largely unprosecuted because of a shortage of homeless shelter space.
       However, according to Lieutenant Jeff Jensen of the Colorado Springs Police Department, the fire-safety effort is less casual than it may appear… and shelter relief is on the horizon.
       As the supervisor of CSPD's Homeless Outreach Team (“hot team”), Jensen keeps in contact with the City Fire Department, and both partner with other government agencies (County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Forest Service) to keep track of potential fire issues in the area.
       In an interview, he said that hillside vulnerability is a priority for the police. “We have dedicated officers patrolling Red Rock Canyon, Garden of the Gods and Cheyenne Canon on a daily basis,” he said. “They get on foot and walk around the parks as well.”
       Authorities also respond to phone calls. If anybody sees an active campfire in a public area, that's against the law and is cause for an “immediate call for service,” Jensen said. Both police and fire officers will respond, he added.
       “The Fire Department cares very much for residents and their property,” commented Steve Wilch, a fire spokesperson. “We don't take any report lightly.”
       The fact is, though, that the occasional reported hills-area campfire - in Red Rock Canyon Open Space, for example - is more likely to be party-oriented, rather than homeless campers, Jensen pointed out.
       What he has found this summer is that the biggest problems with illegal campfires have been in the central part of the city. The main concentration of such campers is along the Greenway Trail, just east of I-25.
       To be proactive about it, “our team advises them of the danger of camping and that fires are illegal,” Jensen said. “I think the problem has been decreased because of our education efforts.”
       Wilke provided statistics that over the past five years the numbers of grass or brush fires (not necessarily in the hills) have gone down. He said he thinks this is largely due to his department's public outreach, including school visits, talking about fire safety.
       Regarding the shelter issue, Jensen said that more beds will become available this fall in the downtown area, through the Springs Rescue Mission (which also works to “facilitate people into transitional housing,” he noted).
       With Springs Rescue going from 60 to 150 beds, that should be a "solution" to the stalemate over the last couple of years, Jensen explained, in which, under city policies, police have been stymied from enforcing the city's no-camping law because those camping had nowhere else to go.

Westside Pioneer article
(Posted 8/18/16, updated 8/19/16; Community: Public Safety)

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