KXAN Austin

Fire at homeless camp in south Austin leaves bridge in need of minor repairs

Fire at a homeless encampment on Sunday morning (Courtesy of Shelly Green via Twitter)

Editor’s Note: While Austin Travis County EMS told KXAN Sunday that no residences were destroyed in the fire and that the area that burned was a trash collection site, the Austin Fire Department told KXAN Monday that AFD investigators believe the part of the encampment that burned was part of the resident’s dwelling and possessions.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A fire at a homeless encampment beneath a flyover bridge in south Austin left some damage to the bridge which will require minor repairs, the Texas Department of Transportation said Sunday. The fire happened at the median where the encampment is: beneath the bridge which connects E Ben White Boulevard to I-35.

The Austin Fire Department said its crews were first called to the fire just before 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Drivers nearby could see flames billowing from the median and upward to the bridge above. AFD crews were able to extinguish the flames and said no one was injured there.

According to AFD, investigators have ruled the cause of the fire as accidental, they believe this fire is the result of a candle kept too close to something combustible.

On Monday, the Austin Fire Department’s investigators sent KXAN updates on this incident, noting there was one resident at the encampment at the time of the fire. AFD said this particular encampment was not a collection of multiple tents, but rather a larger structure that covered the median, made out of tarps, pipes, and multiple shopping carts.

AFD told KXAN that the specific combustible material the candle came into contact with is unknown, but there were tarps, hay bales, clothes, a beg and a couch in the area where the fire started.

Austin Travis County EMS told KXAN one of its Community Health Paramedics responded to this fire. ATCEMS said this paramedic didn’t treat anyone for injuries and didn’t observe any damage to people’s residences on the median.

While an ATCEMS spokesperson said the fire appeared to be concentrated in an area “where the trash collection is,” AFD told KXAN Monday “it is the investigator’s belief that the individual considered this part of his dwelling and his belongings, not trash.”

“There was only one person who claims to reside there and he is able to go back whenever he wants,” AFD investigators said in an email response to KXAN.

A fire broke out Sunday at a homeless encampment along E Ben White in South Austin underneath the flyover bridge which connects to I-35. Most of the damage appears to be concentrated at a portion of the camp where people were not living (right), the tents remaining at the camp did not appear to be burned (left). March 7, 2020. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.
A photo of the portion of a South Austin homeless encampment which caught fire Sunday. Austin Travis County EMS said no one was injured and no residences were damaged. March 7, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Austin Fire Department said one person was arrested at the scene for interfering with a public official. Austin Police, however, told KXAN on Sunday afternoon that they had not arrested anyone there. In video from KXAN photojournalist Mariano Garza, a man can be seen walking through the charred debris, then talking to firefighters, then being handcuffed by Austin Police, though it is unclear what happened afterward.

For several hours Sunday, the flyover from East Ben White to southbound I-35 was closed while TxDOT bridge investigators worked. Eventually, they opened the bridge back up to traffic once they determined it was safe. A TxDOT spokesperson told KXAN that minor repairs will need to be done to the bridge as a result of the fire.

The City of Austin does have a program in some areas to help people experiencing homelessness in the city to better address the buildup of trash: the Violet Bag Program.

“The act of throwing away trash and having access to citywide trash services is something that most housed residents don’t think twice about, and often take for granted,” said Taylor Cook, Program Manager for the City of Austin Service Design Lab in a press release about the Violet Bag Program back in 2019. “We’ve seen a lot of support from individuals in these encampments that want to keep their areas clean, but simply don’t have access to solutions.