Menlo Park firefighters contained a 10-acre blaze in a grasslands area between Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue on the Baylands after a homeless encampment caught fire, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said Friday. Smoke from the fire was seen and smelled for miles.
The fire was reported at 11:15 a.m. on May 22, according to the emergency-notification app PulsePoint. When firefighters arrived five minutes later, the wind-driven blaze had consumed 2 acres. A second alarm was called at 12:42 p.m., which included the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire) to make sure the fire doesn't jump into the adjacent housing, Schapelhouman said. A special off road unit Type 3 fire engine arrived at 1:05 p.m. from San Mateo County Fire along with a water tender from the Woodside Fire Protection District. Two people are believed to have escaped the blaze.
Menlo Park Police Department issued a health advisory for Bayfront Expressway between Willow Road and University Avenue.
The fire started behind Extra Space Storage at 1520 Willow Road, where heavy smoke and flames more than 20 feet high spread through the designated wildlife habitat area. Multiple fire engines, trucks, and battalion chiefs were called to the scene before the blaze was contained, he said.
Firefighters evacuated homeless people who are living in the area, according to fire dispatch. Crews escorted people out of the field, where there are an estimated 30 homeless encampments, said East Side Battalion Chief Rich Villa of Menlo fire's Battalion 101, said at the scene. Thie incident was brought under control at 2.32 p.m. with a full containment line around the fire. Additional grass, vegetation and fuel loading was allowed to burn off to reduce the risk of rekindling and to help prevent new fires from easily starting in the months ahead, Schapelhouman said.
The cause of the relatively slow-moving fire has not yet been determined, but Schapelhouman said there is concern the fire was deliberately set. The area is difficult to access because of booby traps and makeshift toilet pits, he said.
Crews brought in a dozer to make fire breaks to get the area into smaller, more manageable parts in the event of future outbreaks, he said.
Villa said there have been four fires in one month in areas of the Baylands where homeless encampments are established. Most recently there was one in an area adjacent to the United Parcel Service building near O'Brien Drive in the industrial park.
This fire required seven engines, one truck, three battalion chiefs, two fire investigators, a water tender, dozer, type 3 off-road engine and hand crews, or 42 personnel.
Schapelhouman said the department is using a new containment strategy they discussed yesterday and have activated today.
"If there is no life safety risk (people) in these encampments, and/or if our battalion chiefs and captains feel they can better manage risk to the adjacent residential and commercial structures, even though fire may further spread into the surrounding open space, then they can set up a containment line and let the fire come to them. This still protects the community but also ensures that our firefighters are at less risk staying out of the encampments so they can better manage this threat not only to public safety and the surrounding areas, but themselves,” he said.
Schapelhouman said he is fed up with the situation, which is endangering businesses, homes, wildlife habitat and firefighters as well as the people in the encampments.
"Three times we've been out there in a week" to put out fires, he said. Last month, a shooting took place.
"This is not normal. It is not normal," he said.
“If we can avoid it, we are trying to not have our firefighters go into these large encampments. We have found open pits used as toilets or for garbage, that can include drug paraphernalia like needles, self protective measures like trip wires, or worse yet, some hostile inhabitants who have proven they are not afraid to take on police officers. Our firefighters are unarmed. While they can certainly take care of themselves, many of these incidents occur at night, and sometimes the police have not arrived on scene yet as we’re trying to quickly knock a fire down, or jurisdictional response issues can create their further delay,” he said in a later statement.
Schapelhouman said that he has raised the issue of the encampments with multiple agencies, but no one has taken any action. Because sections of the Baylands are owned by different agencies, Caltrans and private owners, it's been hard to determine who should take responsibility, he said. But he is tired of putting his firefighters in harm's way.
"This area and the frequency of these incidents have been becoming a larger and more complicated problem and risk for years. As firefighters, we can’t solve the larger social issue that tends to not only be uncomfortable and rarely discussed, but certainly isn’t being solved here.
"Further complicating this particular location is that it is considered a protected and environmentally sensitive habitat. The actual reality is that upwards of up to 60 people at times have been living in here for years with no toilets, no water, no power, no garbage service and it’s no longer what some believe it is. Bottom line, it can be an actual threat to the community, public safety and our personnel. We will continue to do what we can do, but certainly more aggressively. I’m happy to talk to anyone who can help or wants have an honest conversation about actually solving these issues because it’s getting worse and not getting better, he said.
Schapelhouman said there are solutions. He noted the recreational-vehicles that once camped along Bay Road. It was a nightmare scenario where closely parked vehicles posed a high potential of a daisy-chain of a fire spreading from on to another, he said.
"My firefighters are not going to dig through bags of garbage and feces and needles" to find the hydrant connection, he said of mounds of trash they encountered.
The city of East Palo Alto partnered with local nonprofit organization Project WeHope and opened an overnight safe parking site in May 2019 on municipal property that supplies water and trash collection and other amenities while also helping people to find supportive housing, which eliminated the fire danger and health hazards, he said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated. Fire Chief Schapelhouman has upgraded the blaze from 5.5 to 10 acres.