OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – In June, an apartment building that was under construction burst into flames in Ogden.
The dry conditions and high winds quickly spread the fire which destroyed multiple homes in the vicinity. Soon after the fire was controlled, the Ogden Fire Department concluded that it was human-caused. However, a suspect has still not been identified and there is a cash reward for information leading to an arrest.
Fire officials now believe the fire was started by a homeless person and say the frequency of that type of fire is drastically across the city.
Just off Grant Avenue and just a few blocks from City Hall, rubble is blanketed under snow. A fire hydrant next to the street and a couple trees that line the block still wear scorch marks. A grim reminder of the fire that devastated the neighborhood more than six months ago.
“We still believe it was a homeless person that started the fire,” Ogden City Fire Department Fire Marshal Kevin Brown told ABC4.
The fire is still under investigation and so are a handful of other structure fires which officials believe to be caused by homeless people. According to the fire department, there is an alarming trend in the city. The frequency of this type of fire is on the rise.
“In the 2020 fiscal year we estimate that we had 30 fires that were caused by the homeless (people) and in fiscal year 2021, that number jumped to 65,” explained Deputy Fire Chief Mike Slater. He told ABC4 that those 65 fires cost nearly $55,000 to fight. He said the cost of the damage is in the millions.
Fire officials explained to ABC4 that most of the homeless-related fires are not suspected of being arson. Fire Marshal Brown said during the investigation, this type of fire is often in an abandoned structure and often ignites in the middle of a room which tends to have an outside source.
“I think in a lot of cases it’s a warming fire,” Brown added. “They’re trying to stay warm or they’re trying to cook a can of soup and they start a fire, and you know, that can get out of hand really easily.”
This frequency of this type of fire increases during the winter every year.
“We have a system out there that the city helped develop called the “code blue,” Slater explained. “That says when we hit a certain temperature in the winter, we’re trying to find places for the homeless people to get out of the cold.”
The fire department and police department work proactively to help get homeless individuals into shelters to warm up. The goal is to save people from freezing to death, and possibly prevent additional structure fires.
The police department has two community advocates. The two advocates go out every day and contact the homeless across the city. They teach those they meet about different resources that are available in the area to help get them back on their feet. From mental health, to housing, to job hunting, the community advocates work to eradicate homelessness in Ogden. During the winter, the advocates also focus on getting the homeless population into shelters before nightfall.
There are multiple shelters in Ogden. However, the city works closely with the Lantern House. Often, city officials direct homeless individuals to this shelter to get warm.
“We want everybody to survive during the winter,” Lantern House Deputy Director Summer Rohwer told ABC4. “Like, that’s our main goal right now.”
The shelter can help around 300 people at any time. During the winter, the city works with the shelter to increase its capacity so anyone who needs a place to stay has one.
The goal, again, is to save lives and hopefully prevent structure fires.
Rohwer and the fire department both highlight the importance of not villainizing homeless people in the wake of many structure fires.
“They’re doing their best to survive,” Rohwer stated. She told ABC4 that when a person chooses to break into a structure to start a fire and get warm, they are just trying to survive even though it’s not the best choice to make. She continued, “And I think that’s when the community comes in and we need to steer them to the appropriate resources.”
The fire department asks residents who want to help the homeless to continue doing so. However, the department asks that residents reach out to homeless shelters and find learn about the best ways to help.
According to the fire department, medical calls for homeless individuals are increasing in Ogden as well. Mike Slater told ABC4 the department averages three of those calls every day.