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

Russell Falcon and Alyssa Goard

19 hours ago

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.

Correction: a previous version of this story said that tents were destroyed in the fire, Austin Travis County EMS updated KXAN to share that no residences were destroyed in the fire.

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.

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. An ATCEMS spokesperson explained that no residences were damaged because the fire appeared to be concentrated not where people were living, but in an area “where the trash collection is.”

ATCEMS said because no residences were damaged, no one had to be rehoused or moved to find other options.

When KXAN went to the site, we saw burned debris and shopping carts, but the fire impact did not appear to touch the area where tents had been erected.

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. 

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