OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – In June, an apartment building under construction caught fire in Ogden.
Dry conditions and high winds quickly spread the blaze which destroyed several nearby homes. Shortly after the fire was brought under control, the Ogden Fire Department concluded it was man-made. However, a suspect has still not been identified and there is a cash reward for information leading to an arrest.
Firefighters now believe the blaze was started by a homeless man and say the frequency of this type of fire is considerably citywide.
Just off Grant Avenue and a few blocks from City Hall, the rubble is covered in snow. A fire hydrant next to the street and a few trees lining the block still have burn marks. A grim reminder of the fire that devastated the neighborhood more than six months ago.
“We still believe it was a homeless person who started the fire,” Ogden City Fire Department Fire Marshal Kevin Brown told ABC4.
The blaze is still under investigation, as are a handful of other structure fires that authorities say were caused by homeless people. According to firefighters, there is an alarming trend in the city. The frequency of this type of fire is increasing.
“In FY2020, we estimate that we had 30 fires caused by homeless people (people) and in FY2021 that number increased to 65,” said the Deputy Fire Chief. Mike Slater. He told ABC4 that those 65 fires cost almost $ 55,000 to fight. He said the cost of damage runs into the millions.
Firefighters told ABC4 that most homeless-related fires are not suspected of being arson. Fire Marshal Brown said during the investigation that this type of fire often occurs in an abandoned structure and often ignites in the middle of a room that tends to have an outside source.
“I think in a lot of cases it’s a warming fire,” Brown added. “They’re trying to keep warm or they’re trying to cook a can of soup and they light a fire, and you know, it can get out of hand very easily.”
This frequency of this type of fire increases every year in winter.
“We have a system the city helped develop called ‘code blue,’” Slater explained. “Having said that, when we get to a certain temperature in the winter, we try to find places where the homeless can protect themselves from the cold. ”
Fire and police services are proactively working to help homeless people warm up in shelters. The goal is to save people from freezing death and possibly prevent further structure fires.
The police department has two community advocates. The two lawyers go out every day and contact homeless people across town. They inform those they meet about the various resources available in the region to help them get back on their feet. From mental health to housing to job hunting, community advocates work to end homelessness in Ogden. During the winter, advocates also focus on placing the homeless in shelters before dark.
There are several shelters in Ogden. However, the city works closely with the Lantern House. Often, city officials direct homeless people to this shelter for warmth.
“We want everyone to survive through the winter,” Lantern House deputy manager Summer Rohwer told ABC4. “Like, that’s our main focus right now. ”
The shelter can help around 300 people at any one time. During the winter, the city works with the shelter to increase its capacity so that anyone in need of housing has one.
The goal, again, is to save lives and hopefully prevent structural fires.
Rohwer and the fire department both stress the importance of not denigrating the homeless following numerous structure fires.
“They are doing their best to survive,” Rohwer said. She told ABC4 that when a person chooses to break into a structure to start a fire and warm up, they are simply trying to survive even though that is not the best choice. She continued, “And I think that’s when the community comes in and we need to direct them to the right resources.”
Firefighters are asking residents who want to help the homeless to continue to do so. However, the department is asking residents to contact homeless shelters and find out the best ways to help.
According to firefighters, medical calls for the homeless are also on the rise in Ogden. Mike Slater told ABC4 that the department makes an average of three such calls per day.