For Anchorage’s homeless, staying warm outside in winter is essential — and risky

Destructive fires happen commonly in the city’s largest homeless encampments, according to the Anchorage Fire Department.

In Anchorage’s harsh winter temperatures, unsheltered homeless residents are frequently at risk of injury, losing their belongings — and their lives — from fire while trying to stay warm.

On average, the Anchorage Fire Department responds to one to two fires a day at the city’s homeless encampments, according to assistant fire chief Alex Boyd. During the last three months of 2023, there were 35 fire responses at two of the largest encampments — located near Cuddy Park in Midtown and Davis Park in Mountain View, he said. Numerous other areas of town see fires at encampments and many more fires likely go unreported, he said.

People often rely on propane heaters and makeshift stoves, or open flame fire pits beside or inside their shelters, methods that fire officials warn can be extremely dangerous.

In November, one woman died when her makeshift shelter caught fire while she was sleeping. Investigators said the blaze was caused by a small heat source inside her shelter. Then in December, a trailer camper was destroyed when a campfire spread at the large encampment near Midtown’s Cuddy Park. On New Year’s Day at the same encampment, fire crews put out a large bonfire started by a man trying to stay warm after he ran out of propane, Alaska’s News Source reported.

“You get so sick of the cold you’ll burn anything,” said Greg Smith, speaking on a late December day in the large encampment near Davis Park in Mountain View.

For weeks, city and private shelters have largely filled up each night, according to the city’s shelter dashboard. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates that between 200 and 300 people are still living outside, sleeping in tents, vehicles and on city streets.

City law requires that the city activate an emergency cold weather shelter plan each year when temperatures drop below 45 degrees.

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Between October and November, the city opened 574 shelter beds for the winter, located in two hotels and a group shelter in a former administrative building. That’s the most emergency winter shelter beds the city has provided at the start of winter, city leaders said. But by mid-November, a registration waitlist of people wanting a city shelter bed totaled more than double the number of beds.

Residents at camps say accidental fires are fairly common, but a necessary risk. Their main concern is surviving the cold.

One fire at an encampment happened on a cold night last fall, when Lu Williams said she woke up to flames tearing through her tent in the woods near Davis Park.

She made it out, but said her foot was badly burned.

Paramedics from the fire department brought her to the hospital. Williams said she remembers asking them not to cut the pants she was wearing because, after the fire, all she had were the clothes she was wearing. Williams lost everything in the fire, including photographs with her father, taken in the months before he died of cancer.

She was released from the hospital and returned to the encampment. By late December, Williams said her wounds were nearly gone.

In the immediate aftermath Williams was afraid to be near fires, and has nightmares about them, she said. But she still relies on them to stay warm enough to survive amid the record snowfall and low temperatures this winter.

Smith, a friend and neighbor to Williams, has lived in the area for years and is also an experienced winter camper. His own makeshift home includes a small wood stove.

Propane is a scarce commodity, but critical. Others in the camp sometimes resort to burning trash, he said. Furniture makes a good fire for staying warm, he said.

“A dresser will last you about all night,” Smith said, standing near his shelter on a late December day.

A fire broke out at the other end of the encampment just a few nights before, he said.

Nearby, Murphy Patterson delivered a tank of propane to the camp, dragging it in on a small sled. Patterson then strapped on snowshoes, preparing to go find and cut firewood for everyone.


Davis is a tight-knit community, the residents there said. Those with experience in winter camping help those who are more vulnerable survive.

But many others elsewhere in the city are newer to unsheltered homelessness.

Kaelyn Barlow was staying in one of the city’s shelters before she lost her spot after missing curfew one too many times, she said. Since then, she’s been staying at the encampment adjacent to Cuddy Park.

Unlike dozens of others camping there, Barlow doesn’t have her own tent or vehicle to sleep in. Each day is about finding a way to endure the cold.

An RV at Cuddy burned down a few weeks ago, but it’s not as bad there as it was at the former encampment at Third Avenue and Ingra Street near downtown, Barlow said. Tent fires — including those set by arson — were frequent, she said.

In mid-December, Barlow received a brief reprieve from the freezing temperatures: She was arrested.


“I went to jail, and I was like, actually happy. I was like, ‘Oh, yay, I’m gonna be somewhere warm,’” Barlow said.

“Jail is, it’s never supposed to feel like — it’s not supposed to be like that,” she said.

The officer who arrested Barlow first took her to a hospital, she said.

“That’s when I found out l had frostbite. And then they’re like, it’s critical that I keep my feet warm,” Barlow said in late December. “It’s just harder than you know. Like yesterday, I was in tears, I was so cold.”

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at