Homeless Pose Fire Danger In National Forests
June 13, 2012

Photo by Laurel Morales
Coconino National Forest Patrol Captain Jon Nelson talks to Tim Johnson about fire restrictions.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Southwest as a region has the highest number of homeless people in the nation. A desperate economy and rising temperatures have forced more people to take shelter in the cooler national forests, like the San Bernardino in southern California and the Coconino in northern Arizona.

Forest officials are concerned -- more people in the woods could mean more wildfires.

Two summers ago a fire that threatened 170 homes was sparked by a homeless man living in the Flagstaff woods. That was one of three fires that flanked Flagstaff in one weekend -- a time Police Sergeant James Jackson will never forget.

"I couldn’t go home for four days after working the fires," Jackson said. "I couldn't go back home to my house because the other mountain was on fire so I was a victim of those circumstances."

Jackson pointed to a National Weather Service graph that shows this season’s dry conditions already surpassing those of 2010.

"I mean all we need is a spark and the city will go up again," Jackson said.

So police and forest officials have cracked down on homeless living in the forests. They’re doing flyovers at night and stepping up ground patrols to find illegal campfires.

There are few places for homeless people to stay in northern Arizona right now. The biggest shelter here is temporarily closed. So social service agencies like Catholic Charities readily admit they are handing out tents and sleeping bags and driving people to the forests. Scott Miller works for Catholic Charities.

"Usually it’s the people who life just took a dump on them and they have no other choice they come up to Flagstaff," Miller said.

For years the city has tried to discourage people from coming. And in 2006 Flagstaff made the National Coalition for the Homeless top 10 meanest cities list. That’s the year the city banned camping within city limits. Call it mean, but in a town surrounded by dry dense Ponderosa pine forests, fire is a very real threat.

Photo by Laurel Morales
Coconino National Forest patrol captain Jon Nelson checks out a camp, where someone appears to be living in the forest.

Jon Nelson is the Forest Service patrol captain for northern Arizona forests. He takes me on a ride along to check on people who have overstayed their welcome in the forest.

He knocked on the door of an old RV sitting on a dirt road at the edge of the Coconino National Forest. No one is home, so he walked over to a neighboring tent where Doug Daniels sits.

Nelson explained that it’s illegal to make the national forest your permanent residence. In the Coconino and in many other forests you can’t stay longer than two weeks in a month. So Daniels tries to keep a low profile.

"I’m staying in the forest," Daniels said. "I’ll just move to where they can’t see me."

Daniels is on a fixed income. Others in the forest are completely destitute. When temperatures hit 100 degrees in Phoenix or Las Vegas, the air conditioned shelters in those cities reach capacity fast. So many hitchhike to the shady forests.

"They act like this forest belongs to them it doesn’t," said Daniels, who is from Apache Junction near Phoenix. "This forest belongs to you me and every other American who pays taxes."

Some people took Forest Service officer Nelson’s warning better than others.

"Last thing I want is to have a forest fire or something," said Tim Johnson who is stranded in the forest with his girlfriend.

Their van broke down in Flagstaff so they had it towed to the forest. He said they couldn’t afford to stay at a motel. And frankly it’s cheaper to pay a fine.

"We just came up here to get out of the heat," Johnson said. "When we leave here you won’t know we were here."

Flagstaff firefighters and residents hope and pray that everyone camping will be very careful -- that this won’t be the year of another catastrophic blaze.