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I-Team: As fires increase in 'The Zone' this November, people struggle to stay safe

In all, there have been 72 calls for fires in "The Zone" in 2022, which has already surpassed 2021's 42 calls reported in the same neighborhood.

PHOENIX — Neighbors watched in horror as crews raced to smother flames at 9th Avenue and Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix again.

There were no physical injuries in this tent fire, but it burned multiple tent spaces and displaced three people who already had nowhere else to go.

"And I doused the flames with a gallon of water, but I need more water and there wasn't any on hand," said Ninde Michaels.

Michaels tried to put the tent fire out herself while trying to salvage her belongings.

"The way they see it is just trash, but it's not," she shared. "It's all I have right now."

Her torched tent is a remnant of the third fire on this block in just a week, and one of many 911 calls for a fire so far this month in "The Zone," Phoenix’s largest homeless encampment.

A 12News I-Team analysis of key blocks in "The Zone" shows that November had the most 911 calls for fires this year, with 13 calls as of November 23, 2022. 

In all, there have been 72 calls for fires in "The Zone" in 2022, which has already surpassed 2021's 42 calls reported in the same neighborhood.

The 12News I-Team derived this information from city fire data, honing in on calls reported for debris fires, vehicle fires, trash fires, dumpster fires, structure fires, tree fires, and other unknown fires from 9th to 13th avenues from Jefferson to Jackson streets.

"We'd be cold at night, and during the day, we're probably cooking," said James, who only gave his first name.

James said he’s been living in "The Zone" on and off for the past five years. 

This year, the population in the encampment tripled - at some points surpassing a thousand people.  And James has noticed more fires getting out of control.

"They catch on fire so quick," he said, referring to tents. "They pop. And that's how they go from tent to tent to tent to tent."

Earlier this month, he said his tent was spared while his neighbors’ burned down. But at this rate, he’s worried a devastating fire is inevitable.

"What would probably help mostly is finding some kind of warmness," he shared. "Some kind of something to keep us warm. Because that's our biggest problem keeping warm."

In the summer, there are temporary cooling centers around the county for heat relief. But when it comes to the winter months, there aren’t special spaces for heat, and the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County say they rely on existing shelter space. Often, these shelters are already at capacity.

"It's pretty it's pretty hard, you know?" she said.  "I've been crying on and off all morning. But it just - it really sucks."

She says she’s on a waitlist for housing but plans to cram into a neighbor’s tent in the meantime and hopes she doesn't have to face this hazard again.

"I can understand why people would be concerned about all this stuff going on here," she told. "But we don't want to be here as much as you guys want us out here."

12News learned in a community meeting that providers like the Human Services Campus are working with the police and fire departments to figure out a way to equip people in tents with tools like fire extinguishers, but that plan also comes with concerns about misuse.

I-Team

Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist. 

She says she’s on a waitlist for housing – but plans to cram into a neighbor’s tent in the meantime.

The human cost of this encampment hazard…

SOT

<And I can understand why people would be concerned about all this stuff going on here. But we don't want to be here as much as you guys want us out here.>

ERICA TAG

We learned in a community meeting that providers like the human services campus are working with the police and fire departments to figure out a way to equip people in tents with tools like fire extinguishers….but that also comes with concerns about misuse. We’re in Phoenix, Erica Stapleton 12 News.

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