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Rural fire chiefs confront El Paso County commissioners Tuesday regarding wildfires, homeless camps

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- After responding to two wildfires in the past two weeks, one at a homeless camp and the other started by target shooting, rural fire chiefs in southern El Paso County have had enough.

On Tuesday, they appeared at the weekly meeting of county commissioners asking that more be done to control the formation of illegal homeless camps, and seeking stronger prosecution of people who support or contribute to the camps.


Authorities said that a fire started at a camp in Stratmoor Hills last week where the property owner or manager initially allowed a few people to stay, but the number of camp residents quickly increased.


“Our fire crews, as well as our deputies, encountered multiple explosions and were exposed to numerous toxic chemicals — some known and some unknown," said Fire Chief Shawn Bittle. "Law enforcement has made more than 70 calls to that address. Responding to homeless camp fires takes valuable time away from our other duties."


Firefighters said that the camps create safety and health risks -- for the residents and the responding crews -- because of trash and garbage, excrement from humans and pets, illegal drug use, propane fuel tanks used for heating and campfires.


Commissioners said that they will try to work more closely with firefighters to address the issues.

"We're trying to do what we can," said commissioner chairman Stan VanderWerf. "It's important to remember that there are shelters and other resources available for people who need them. But we can't make people seek help. Property owners have the right to let homeless people live there, but they have to be willing to follow the health and safety guidelines that are required."


VanderWerf also said that he'd like to see more families and close friends help homeless people stay off the streets and out of camps.

"I know that some homeless people have alcohol or drug addiction, or mental illness, and are estranged from their families," he said. "But having someone involved who is related to or knows a homeless person would be a big help."

After the fire chiefs' presentation, another fire chief -- Carl Tatum, of Hanover -- spoke angrily to commissioners during the public comments period.

"I wasn't going to say anything today, but you guys have really pissed me off," he said. "What are you going to do? Because I am tired, year after year, for the last 15 years, two times a year, we’re out there fighting major wildland fires. The community is threatened, and you are doing nothing about it.”

Tatum is upset that fires ignite from makeshift shooting ranges -- on county property -- near the Pikes Peak International Raceway, not far from the Midway residential community, the same area where a wildfire started Saturday.


"Sometimes we have to get people to stop shooting while we're fighting fires," he said. "They're shooting at furniture, old cars and all kinds of stuff that gets dumped there and is never picked up. This is county property. This is your property. When are you going to do something about your own property?"

Commissioners promised to have further discussions with Tatum to learn more details about the situation.


In other business, commissioners unanimously passed two resolutions -- one to oppose a statewide ballot question next month that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms, and another to oppose allowing sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado Springs and Palmer Lake.


"I know people are wondering why a county board is taking a stand on municipal issues," said commissioner co-chairperson Cami Bremer. "It's because those issues, if they pass, will affect the entire county in terms of law enforcement and health resources."

Finally, commissioners heard from family and friends of Dezaree Archuleta, 18, who died at the El Paso County Jail in June -- one of at least seven inmate deaths at the jail this year.


The El Paso County Coroner's Office ruled her death a suicide, but her loved ones said that she was having emotional issues at the time and jail staff failed to provide her with the help she needed.

Archuleta's family is asking for Sheriff Bill Elder to be held accountable, and for more mental health resources to be made available to inmates.

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Scott Harrison

Scott is a reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Scott here.


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