Firefighters extinguish second homeless camp blaze since March


Firefighters on Friday morning (June 24) paid another emergency visit to the site of a grass fire at an undeveloped area in Menlo Park at the intersection of Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue. The area, known as the Kavanaugh Tract, is used as a campground by the homeless.

The fire, reported around midnight, burned two acres of grassland but caused no injuries and damaged no structures, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said. Four engine companies (about 20 firefighters) with a water-pumping truck had the blaze contained in about an hour, he said.

It's the second significant grass fire at the Kavanaugh Tract in three months. A fire on March 28 burned 13 acres, required about three hours to extinguish, and drew firefighters from four other agencies. There were no injuries in either incident.

The Kavanaugh Tract is home to three "big" homeless encampments, the chief said. In the March 28 fire, firefighters saw homeless people running from the fire, something they did not see this time, the chief said.

Investigators do not yet know the cause of this fire.

Menlo Park firefighters have been to the Kavanaugh Tract since March 28 more than once, the chief said. "Something keeps happening. I don't think it's all related to them losing control of their cooking fires," he said.

A fire could have been set as an act of retaliation, Chief Schapelhouman said, adding that assaults are rare among the homeless, but burning someone's possessions is a not uncommon means of punishment.

Some of the campers may not have been driven there by homelessness, he added, but are choosing to live "off the radar" because they have problems adjusting to civil society.

In both fires, firefighters employed light-weight hoses used to fight wildland fires. In this fire, using 50-foot lengths, the joined hoses that firefighters had to drag across the land were between 300 feet and 500 feet long, the chief said.

Wildland hoses are light to make them easier to haul around, but that lightness also makes them more vulnerable to puncture, which happened several times on Friday morning, the chief said. The campground is a field of litter. "These places turn into little garbage dumps," the chief said.

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