Ontario Fire and Rescue responded to a fire early Tuesday morning at 1337 Alameda Drive in Ontario, where a pile of junk was threatening the garage it was burning next to.
Fire Chief Terry Leighton said the fire was contained to the outside and threatened “the wall and roof section of the garage,” However, due to the brick walls on the structure, including the adjacent house, the structures remained safe after the fire was put out.
“The problem is the amount of trash everywhere,” Leighton wrote in an email. “This area was an old metal shed that had collapsed quite some time ago that had just been filled with trash.”
Ontario firefighters removed the metal shed parts and moved large amounts of trash and put the fire out, according to the chief, who said he was glad the fire did not make it to the structures.
The address is one that officials within the county are familiar with and “it is a terrible situation,” Leighton said.
“The county has been trying to get it cleaned up,” he said. “This is where multiple homeless people were living and some still are living in campers and a bus.”
RV living banned in county
The property is one that indeed garnered much attention in the spring of 2019 as it is technically located in the county, but sits right across from Alameda Elementary School, which is within city limits. At the time, as Leighton stated, it had become full of homeless people and law enforcement was constantly responding to calls there.
Photos of the property were among exhibits of RV living gone wrong within the county that the Malheur County Court considered before eventually crafting an ordinance banning the use of recreational vehicles as permanent dwellings and limited their use as temporary homes. That ordinance affects land within the county that is outside of city limits and urban growth boundary. Temporary use of recreational vehicles was only to be allowed during construction of a permanent home and for short-term guests or in the case of first responders for emergency stays.
Update on the property
According to Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, whose deputies have been tasked with responding over the years to incidents at the address said his office used to get a lot of complaints that were tied to the property but that those had tapered off after they worked hard on cleaning it up.
Tuesday was the first time in a long time that somebody had called to complain about the people being there. However, Wolfe said there doesn’t seem to be much they can do because the homeowner has allowed people to set up there, adding that the majority of the work was done when the county crafted the ordinance banning RV living.
“So there were a lot of people living on the property and a neighboring one at one time, so we exercised that ordinance and got most of the people out of there,” he said.
At that time, there were about seven or eight campers with people living in them and “causing a lot of problems for the neighbors,” according to the sheriff. He said neighbors were experiencing theft and lack of sleep because people would be active and loud during the night hours.
“It became a real problem, so we issued citations and got people moved out.”
As fire staff did on Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies in 2019 cleared away trash.
“We did clean a bunch of stuff up,” Wolfe said. “Load and loads went out and went to the landfill. And there are loads and loads more that needs to be done. But it is the responsibility of the property owner.”
Wolfe estimates that there are 300 to 400 people in Malheur County who are homeless and says there doesn’t appear to be any good answer for the best way to address it. Among this count are people who are living in campers and RVs and even their vehicles.
Wolfe said many of the individuals do not want services or resources, but some do. The question he said then is, “How do you help those folks get to where they can sustain rent and to provide a home for themselves.”
Homelessness is a community problem, Wolfe said, not just one for law enforcement to solve, but one that requires a lot of resources from many different agencies and entities.
“We can give citations,” he said. “But really, what does a citation do?”
The problem is they don’t always have permission to park somewhere else so it “kind of becomes a revolving door.”
Homelessness is increasing in the county. And while Wolfe said that many of those people are seen in the cities, there is also a large number living in the county that are outside the cities in really old or very inexpensive camp trailers or less.
Some homeless people are just looking for a suitable place to get out of the weather, he said, which may include a bridge or some similar structure.
The problem with that is they get out of the moisture and precipitation, but not out of the cold.
As to the fire on Alameda on Tuesday, Wolfe said he figured “one of the people who are living there was trying to stay warm.”