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Anchorage Assembly votes to allow quicker clearing of camps in ‘wildfire danger areas’

Firefighters worked to contain a wildland fire in near Campbell Creek and Elmore Road in Midtown Anchorage on July 3, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously Tuesday to make some homeless camps clear out faster if they are within what the fire department deems “wildfire danger areas.”

The resolution, introduced after a wildfire in the Campbell Park area rapidly consumed 25 acres on July 2, allows the city to clean out campsites after 24 hours in places where there is a heightened risk of wildfire.

Normally, people living in encampments are given either 10 days’ or 72 hours’ notice before they have to clear out, depending on the circumstances.

Fires on municipal lands are always illegal, Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick told the Assembly, but this law would apply only when a burn ban is in place.

Anchorage is now six weeks into a burn ban, circumstances that Hettrick called “unprecedented.” In the first two weeks, the fire department responded to 199 reports of wildfires and illegal fires, she said.

“We have some areas around the community where people are using our green spaces for, whether it’s camping or recreational activities, either one, we have no ability to go in and really kick them out and say this is unsafe," Hettrick said.

Hettrick told the Assembly the department plans to work with researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage — “if those resources are still in place,” she said — to identify those high-risk areas. Russian Jack Springs Park, she said, would likely be one of them; downed trees still sitting there from a 2013 windstorm make for volatile fuels during the dry summer months.

The resolution primarily addresses campfires rather than propane tanks, which Hettrick said generally have functioning safety devices that prevent them from causing large wildfires.

The proposal was met with mixed criticism from members of the public, some of whom called it “bigoted" against the homeless population, and others of whom said it was “not extensive enough” in addressing problems caused by encampments.

The resolution would also enable the municipality to clear out camps immediately if the fire chief decides to close an area to public use because of wildfire risk. That provision could, in some cases, leave trails open — a possibility that Triada Stampas, policy director for the ACLU of Alaska, took issue with.

“It’s effectively an evacuation order for some, but not for all,” Stampas said. ”It’s difficult to envision what the situation is that this particular provision imagines. It appears to have only the effect of enabling the removal of houseless residents without the notice required that would otherwise be required."

Assembly member Christopher Constant, though, argued the resolution was meant to target the “interface between high-density residences and our public greenbelts,” not homeless people.

“This isn’t about a disparate attack against individuals with no means; this is about saving their lives from an accident that is waiting to happen,” Constant said.

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