AUSTIN, Texas - A fire broke out at a large homeless camp below the eastbound frontage road of Anderson Lane, between IH-35 and Cameron Road Monday morning.
“We come down here for medical calls a lot. We always feared there being a fire -- well there was a fire. Upon arrival there were no residents of the camp that we had to deal with and rescue.” explained Battalion Chief Matthew Cox, of the Austin Fire Department.
Cox, said firefighters were worried about spaces, small fires -- and possibly, people they could not reach in the catacomb like camp.
“It is definitely a very unsafe situation for our firefighters as they're gonna have to dig through this stuff for hours.” he said.
The camp spans roughly three football fields. Cox described, “couches, tv's, propane tanks, padlocked areas, mattresses, trash and literally hundreds of needles.”
It is an entire system of underground homes. Many, containing stove tops, refrigerators, bunk beds -- all built into the overpass.
“I like landscaping and so I dug a big a** cave into the wall under the bridge about ten feet underground. I mean, I built a furnace and chimney in there and it's nice and warm and cozy.” explained Ridge Johnson, who lives in the camp.
Johnson believes he is one of about 100 people living under the overpass.
“They've become very resourceful in dealing with lack of no power. So, there's a generator that we have to account for that leaking into the watershed.” said Cox.
The camp sits in a watershed, on property the City of Austin’s watershed department says belongs to TXDOT.
FOX 7 Austin spoke with TXDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges. Hodges explained that TXDOT did clean areas under overpasses for a time period. They turned that responsibility over the the City of Austin last summer. Then, in November Governor Greg Abbott instructed TXDOT to take back cleanups at 17 locations. She says those locations, are under overpasses primarily impacting pedestrians -- the Anderson Lane site, is not one of the 17 sites. "Bottom line" Hodges said, "the city is responsible for encroachments on state roadways, and encampments are encroachments" She explained that TXDOT has "never performed cleanups in the watershed. That has always been the city's responsibility."
TXDOT did however need to call Hazmat to the Anderson Lane site Monday -- as their bridge inspectors were unable to reach the fires starting point otherwise.
“Just to make sure it’s safe for our guys to go down there.” Hodges explained.
Inspectors said the bridge was fine. It re-opened for traffic at rush hour.
The City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department says a member of their “pollution prevention team” visited the site back in July -- following a citizen complaint.
Last week, the city began cleaning up homeless camps in watersheds as part of a $250,000 year long contract that could be extended. The city is flexible on how many sites they'll clean up this year, but right now, they're slated to clean approximately twenty. This site -- was not on the city's initial list of spots to clean.
But this Friday crews cleaned out a nearby site -- directing their attention to the site that caught fire Monday. As a result, they made plans to evaluate it, and hope to add it to their list of clean up sites.
“This is an area of illicit activity, so we're gonna have to coordinate with our police department to have a presence.” explained Jose Guerrero.
Ridge Johnson, says the room he carved out was not impacted -- and he plans to return as soon as possible.