Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria is urging fire safety among the city’s homeless and plans to distribute a safety flier starting Tuesday in response to the death of a homeless man over the weekend.
Brian Barbour, 53, died of smoke inhalation after his tent caught fire late Saturday, the state Fire Marshal’s Office said Monday. Barbour managed to crawl out of the tent but succumbed to smoke and carbon monoxide as the fire burned his tent, sleeping bag and blankets, fire officials said.
An investigator with the Fire Marshal’s Office said he believes the fire was started by a candle.
Barbour was among a group of homeless people camping between West Commercial Street and the Fore River on wooded land owned by Pan Am Railways.
Earlier this year, a homeless couple on outer Washington Avenue was injured when a candle ignited their tent. Firefighters also have been called to put out a few campfires at what appeared to be homeless encampments, although no one was there when they arrived, LaMoria said.
The new flier is intended to instruct homeless people on ways to improve safety when camping, even though having an unpermitted outdoor fire is not allowed, LaMoria said.
For example, he said, fires should be built downwind of a campsite, six to eight feet from any tent or belongings, and combustible materials should be cleared away. LaMoria also said people should avoid smoking or using open flames, such as from a candle, inside a tent.
The flier will be distributed by homeless outreach workers and will be available at soup kitchens and other locations where homeless people sometimes congregate, he said. Firefighters also will distribute the fliers when they respond to calls involving homeless people, LaMoria said.
The precautions aren’t just for the safety of people using the flames for light or heat.
Most of the undergrowth at this time of year is extremely dry, so a brush fire can spread quickly, threatening people and property nearby, LaMoria said.
It’s a tough message to get out, said Bill Burns, head of the day shelter at Preble Street. Homeless people are often looking for a little heat from the open flame of a candle in addition to light, he said, and a flashlight doesn’t offer that.
“People are trying to survive and sometimes people get really desperate,” he said.
Burns said he hopes the increasingly warm weather will reduce the desire for flames inside a tent.
Barbour’s last fixed address was on India Street, authorities said. But he chose to stay outside rather than in a city shelter and did not take advantage of services provided by Preble Street, Burns said.
Outreach workers encountered Barbour but had relatively little contact with him, Burns said. After he died, police notified relatives in New Hampshire.
Amanda Wagner, walking her dog Herschel between the Casco Bay Bridge and Commercial Street on Monday, said she was not sure if she knew the man who died. But if he was the Brian she’s thinking of, she said, he could be very helpful.
“He was really nice. … Most of them are,” observed Wagner, who said she had been homeless but is not now. “The homeless camping — it’s about community, people helping each other.”
The homeless encampment on railroad land off West Commercial Street is one of several scattered around the city.
Railroad police periodically issue no-trespassing orders to the homeless, some of whom move on to other areas. Some, however, just wait until it is dark to find their way through the trails that snake through the undergrowth.
The site where Barbour died is a blackened circle with just a few scraps of charred clothing. Two 40-ounce Hurricane high-alcohol beer bottles lay there Monday.
LaMoria said the challenges of mental illness and addiction make the homeless even more vulnerable to dangers such as fire.
“So much of the time, those issues lead to impairment in judgment and motor skills,” he said. Investigators believe Barbour was asleep when the fire started.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: