An aging recreational vehicle parked at a makeshift homeless encampment on North Whidbey was destroyed in a fire early Sunday morning, according to Chief Chris Swiger with North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.
A dog inside the RV was killed in the blaze on Hoffman Road, but no people were injured. Swiger said the fire was the third in the last few months at the roadside encampment. Another RV was destroyed and a trash pile was set ablaze over the summer.
Swiger reported that the cause of the fire was undetermined, but foul play is not suspected. Island County Sheriff Rick Felici said the man who had been living in the RV fled the scene before first responders arrived.
The RV was old and stuffed full of junk, which made it burn fiercely, the fire chief explained.
Firefighters received the report of the RV fire just after 2 a.m. and found the vehicle was fully involved in flames when they arrived.
North Whidbey Fire and Rescue was joined by firefighters from Oak Harbor and the Navy base. Swiger said it took about 45 minutes to put out the conflagration followed by at least an hour of cleanup.
The encampment on the side of Hoffman Road, which continued to grow in recent months, has caused consternation among neighboring property owners and county officials. Dozens of people live in RVs, cars and tents on the shoulder of the road.
Swiger said he has concerns about the safety of the encampment. The RVs are crowded together, which increases the risk that a fire could spread, although firefighters were able to prevent that from happening Sunday.
One of the residents has a wood stove to heat his RV, which the chief advised is not a good idea. Many others heat their homes with old propane tanks or questionable generators.
Beyond fires, the department regularly responds to a variety of medical emergencies at Hoffman Road. Since March 3, the department responded to 41 medical calls at the site, Swiger said. He said he worries about his personnel being inadvertently stuck by hypodermic needles.
Felici spearheaded a large cleanup effort on Hoffman Road earlier this year and has been searching for solutions. The county’s efforts to remove the vehicles is limited by a federal court decision that essentially says a governmental body cannot ban homeless camps altogether if there is no adequate housing elsewhere.
Still, the sheriff said the ruling doesn’t give the people on Hoffman Road the right to break the law by trashing the area, creating hazards or defecating on the ground.
Felici said he plans on being much more aggressive about removing RVs in the near future. He and the county commissioners recently had a lengthy discussion about the issue and explored various possible solutions, including setting up a piece of county property for people to live out of vehicles.