April 8, 2013

Fatal fire shows risk to Portland's homeless

The discovery of a man’s ‘badly burned’ body prompts calls for outreach, as more homeless people forgo shelters to camp outside.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The death of a homeless man in a fire that broke out in his waterfront encampment underscores the need for doing more fire safety education with Portland's homeless population, city officials said Sunday.

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Jerome LaMoria, Portland fire chief

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Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said a passer-by reported a fire in the woods off West Commercial Street just before midnight Saturday.

The state Fire Marshal's Office has identified the victim as Brian Barbour, 53.

Barbour apparently died of smoke inhalation, said Sgt. Joel Davis of the Fire Marshal's Office 

Investigators say it appears the fire may have been caused by a candle inside Barbour's tent, which ignited the contents.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, which destroyed a tent and some personal belongings and scorched a small wooded area. Firefighters also discovered a "badly burned" body, LaMoria said.

LaMoria said the tragedy demonstrates how vulnerable the city's homeless population is.

LaMoria said he has started talking with the city about creating an outreach program that would offer fire safety tips to homeless people who have chosen to camp outside rather than stay in a city shelter.

"The homeless place themselves at great risk when forced to use open flames for heating and lighting," LaMoria said in a news release issued Sunday.

Saturday's fire is the third reported at a homeless encampment that the city has responded to this year, LaMoria said.

In one of those fires, two people suffered minor burns and had to be taken to a hospital after the candles they were burning set fire to their shelter.

Nicole Clegg, the city of Portland's spokeswoman, said investigators from the Portland police and fire departments, along with the state Fire Marshal's Office, were conducting an investigation into Saturday night's fire.

The state Medical Examiner's Office is expected to do an autopsy.

"It's not suspicious. It appears to be accidental," Clegg said.

The man had set up camp in a wooded area on the waterfront side of West Commercial Street.

Homeless advocates say the area along both sides of West Commercial Street frequently attracts homeless people, who would rather camp outside than stay in a shelter.

During the city's annual homeless survey earlier this year -- the survey attempts to identify the number of people not staying in shelters -- Josh O'Brien and his team found a man living inside a cavernous, abandoned railroad tunnel off West Commercial Street, on the inland side of the street.

O'Brien said his team also discovered several homeless encampments across the street from the tunnel, on the waterfront side of the road that stretches from the Casco Bay Bridge to the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

"At almost every campsite we come across there is a capacity for making a fire," said O'Brien, who serves as director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter.

Last fall, the city was notified by the Coast Guard that someone had established a campsite on pylons that jutted out into the Fore River off West Commercial Street.

When city officials went to investigate, they found a propane heater inside a tent. Exhaust fumes from the heater were blowing back into the tent.

O'Brien said he is concerned about the dangers of open fires because the city's homeless population is growing. More people are opting to set up camps rather than stay in a crowded, noisy shelter.

He said many of the city's homeless people are struggling with mental health or addiction problems, increasing the danger of a fire starting at a makeshift campsite.

Saturday's death is Portland's second fire death in 2013, according to LaMoria.

Julia Ball, 56, of Burnside Avenue died in February at a Boston hospital after suffering burns on 70 percent to 80 percent of her body. The fire at her home was caused by smoking materials, LaMoria said.

"The city usually doesn't have two fire fatalities in one year," the fire chief said. "That's why I am very concerned about getting a fire safety message out."

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

 

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