Woman dies in fire at Escambia encampment, highlights dangers for homeless population

A woman who died in a tragic fire at a homeless encampment Wednesday evening was the fourth homeless person to perish in the streets in Escambia County this year.

Escambia County Fire Rescue was dispatched at 7 p.m. to the area of the 4200 block of North Palafox Street and Hickory Street in reference to an outdoor fire at a campsite in a wooded area.

"When we got there, we confirmed the person who caught on fire passed on," said Davis Wood, public information officer for Escambia County Public Safety.

ECSO spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Hobbs confirmed an autopsy was scheduled for Thursday. The official cause of the fire was still under investigation by State Fire Marshal's Office.

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Michael Kimberl, director of the Alfred-Washburn Center and co-founder of Sean's Outpost, said he believes the fire was a very unfortunate accident.

"She was a very sweet lady," Kimberl said. "I don't think she had a mean bone in her body."

Kimberl knew the 53-year-old woman as a friend and client of the Alfred-Washburn Center, a day center that for 22 years has been helping the homeless community survive by providing a place to do laundry, take showers, receive mail, acquire documents needed to obtain employment and housing, as well as rationing out hygiene items and camping supplies.

Sean's Outpost is an outreach and nine-acre campground outfitted to serve the area's homeless population. It's one of the few places people can camp with support and facilities without being in an isolated campsite such as where Wednesday's fire occurred.

Kimberl hadn't seen the woman in a while since she suffered a recent stroke and her mobility became an issue. He knew she wasn't alone when the fire started.

Authorities confirmed other injuries occurred during the fire. A nearby campmate and the woman's boyfriend who tried to help out were also injured in the fire.

Hobbs said fires at homeless camps are very common now, especially with the cold weather. The potential for fires to get out of control can be high when makeshift shelters are made out of highly flammable plastic tarps and nylon tents.

Wood said calls come in to the county at least once or twice a month about fires at homeless encampments, usually after someone reports seeing smoke as they drive by.

"Usually, they're trying to stay warm or maybe they're cooking food," Wood said.

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Wood said the fires are usually fairly controlled at the camps, but firefighters advise them to extinguish the fire if it presents a hazard. They normally comply without incident.

"This is our second person this year to die in a fire," Kimberl said, in reference to the homeless. The other was a homeless man named Chico who had been sleeping in an abandoned camper and couldn't get out in time when a candle caught fire.

Kimberl said exposure is one of the biggest concerns for the homeless population.

"This rain today and tomorrow is going to soak everything, and then the temperatures are going to drop quickly," Kimberl said. "We've been handing out as many blankets and tarps as we can to keep them warm and dry."

Kimberl said it's the least they can do until the things that really get people off the streets, like more shelter beds and affordable housing, become a reality in Pensacola.

"Due to all the exposure to all the elements, we watch people age a lot quicker than the homed community," Kimberl said. "It's heart-wrenching to watch people age so quickly out here."

In the case of Wednesday's fire, Kimberl is even more saddened by the fact that the woman's death might have been prevented had she known there was a shuttle running from a local church to the daytime shelter at Waterfront Rescue Mission. The overnight shelter is for men only.

"It's very difficult getting information like that to our clientele," Kimberl said.

Organizations that serve the homeless community held a recent candlelight vigil to remember those who died while living in the streets. In 2021, at least 28 people died.

The woman who died Wednesday makes the fourth homeless person to pass so far in 2022. In addition to the two fire-related deaths, Kimberl said one death was due to medical reasons and another was from a drug overdose.

Kimberl said the woman who passed Wednesday had a doting boyfriend who had been doing what he could to take care of the two of them. At times, she used a wheelchair and it was easier for the woman to stay behind at the camp while he made trips to the center to get what they needed.

As the homeless population does their best to survive, Wednesday's tragedy suggests the odds are sometimes stacked too high against them.

"We have a problem in our town, it does need to be addressed," Kimberl said. "We've neglected it for far too long."

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola Florida woman dies in fire at homeless encampment