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Stratmoor Hills Fire contained but questions remain

Stratmoor Hills Fire
Posted at 3:57 PM, Oct 10, 2022

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — A fire at a homeless camp in Stratmoor Hills early Monday morning could have been much worse, according to fire officials.

Firefighters were called to the area of Hampton South and Chamberlin South, northwest of the interchange of I-25 and S. Academy Boulevard just before 2 a.m.

When firefighters arrived, they found a homeless camp where several vehicles, tents, propane tanks and other objects were on fire.

Stratmoor Hills Fire Chief Shawn Bittle told KOAA News5's Andy Koen that as many as 50 propane tanks exploded because of the heat from the flames.

During the process of trying to put out the fire, the Sheriff's office had deputies working to evacuate people from the homeless camp. We're told several of them refused to leave.

According to the Stratmoor Hills Fire Department around 40 firefighters and half a dozen members of law enforcement were working the line into the early hours of the morning. At this time it appears that no one was injured during the fire.

The homeless camp is surrounded on all sides by homes and apartments. Firefighters say the fire likely would have spread into the the nearby neighborhoods had the fire danger been high.

The fire is currently still under investigation and due to the damage and nature of the fire, the department believes the exact cause will be hard to pin down. However, the department believes that the fire origin came from inside one of the RVs on the property.

The camp is located on private property and the people living at the camp had permission to be there.

In a statement, El Paso County said there isn't much they can do because the land is privately owned. They also addressed their plans for dealing with homeless camps moving forward.

El Paso County is aware of the fire in the Stratmoor Hills area. County staff has been working continuously to address concerns of this nature. This location has an active code enforcement case for violations of El Paso County’s Rubbish Ordinance and Land Development Code for operation of illegal uses, including illegal occupancy at the property.  The matter is also currently in the Fourth Judicial District Court because the property is privately owned and is not a parcel owned by El Paso County.

In such situations, the County must follow the law as written. In this case, the County cannot simply go onto the premises and remove people or abate other violations without due process of law.

Further, the County’s understanding is that the occupants of this location have permission to reside there from property owners and are not illegally trespassing. We rely on property owners to be responsible and cooperative regarding homeless or illegal activities.  The owner has been made aware that although they have granted permission for individuals to reside on that property, it is not permitted under the County’s land use regulations.  Unfortunately, when a property owner is unwilling to address the situation voluntarily, as in this case, it requires the County to escalate the matter into the court process which can greatly delay resolution compared to when a property owner voluntarily seeks compliance and cooperates with Code Enforcement.  To that end, the County is in the process of seeking further relief from the courts to hold the property owner accountable, and if necessary, allow the County to enter the property and remove the rubbish and require that any persons occupying the property be removed, along with their vehicles and/or belongings.

When we are made aware of a camp, we research the jurisdiction, and determine who is responsible, then notify the responsible agency.  We also continuously encourage the homeless to seek help from one of our service providers, like Springs Rescue Mission or Salvation Army.

We are proposing $150,000 of additional funding in the 2023 budget for homeless camp cleanup. We are dedicated to continued efforts to address homelessness in our region through partnerships, outreach, funding, and enforcement.

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