Black smoke billowed over the Centralia skies on Tuesday night as officers from the Centralia Police Department, the Riverside Fire Authority and the Chehalis Fire Department responded to a blaze at Blakeslee Junction, the location of the largest homeless encampment in Lewis County.
At the end of Eckerson Road in Centralia and abutting Reynolds Road, the encampment is visible from Interstate 5. Calls came in on the incident around 7:25 p.m., according to Riverside Fire Chief Kevin Anderson. Minutes later, police scanner traffic stated Lewis County Dispatch had received at least 25 calls about the large column of smoke.
The fire was extinguished around 9 p.m., but crews remained for “significant” cleanup efforts, Anderson said on Wednesday morning. No injuries were reported from the blaze, but at least three residents were displaced after one two-story wood structure and an RV were fully destroyed, according to accounts from both Anderson and Lewis County Salvation Army Captain Gin Pack.
Shortly after the fire was reported, staff from the Salvation Army were at the scene offering transportation to the organization’s night-by-night homeless shelter at 303 N. Gold St., Centralia. Due to residents’ concerns over their belongings and pets, Pack said none were convinced to stay there.
At least one of those residents was able to stay with a friend at the King Oscar Motel, Pack said.
While the total number of people who live at the encampment has fluctuated over the years, as of the summer of 2022, there were about 24 residents. Around the county’s annual point in time count, Pack said there were 26 people living there.
During a tour of the encampment last summer, Anderson shared concerns about frequent fires in the area started by residents keeping warm. He said they could be fueled by vehicles, fire pits, grills and other machinery being packed in together beside often dry vegetation.
Since the start of 2023, Anderson reported on Wednesday, Riverside has been called to the area for smoke investigations four times. Also just this year, the agency has been to the area for two fires and two medical calls.
He said responders had to use 1100 feet of hose to reach from fire engines to the blaze Tuesday night due to vehicles and other property blocking access to the encampment’s entrance.
Anderson also noted the presence of signs posted by the Washington Department of Transportation, which has the right-of-way to the land due to its proximity to I-5, on Tuesday night, which he called “brand new.” The signs demand that residents vacate the property within the next two days. Pack expressed concern over those and the rights of the people living there.
Pack and other people with the Salvation Army were present at the encampment on Wednesday morning to assess residents’ needs, provide food, blankets and share that there was room at the shelter.
“We’re going to provide resources,” Pack said, adding the organization has done outreach to the encampment in the past. “(We’ll be) reaffirming that we have space at the shelter. Sometimes they don’t realize that they can take their pets.”
For anyone interested in providing assistance, she encouraged calling the Salvation Army’s office at 360-736-4339.
“As we provide ongoing resources, the needs will change,” she said.