Homeless Camp’s ‘Warming Fire’ May Have Started Blaze in Stockton

STOCKTON -- After an unusually warm beginning to the month, temperatures in November have been starting to cool quickly, at least at night.

Once a major waterway through town, Airport Way, where it crosses Mormon Slough, has been dry for decades and is home to dozens of homeless city dwellers.

It's where fire units responded to a call of a grass fire with reports of flames licking up both sides of the bridge. The fire degraded the concrete enough that it has been closed for further inspection.

Although there is some dry vegetation in Mormon Slough, there appeared to be more items in the area that were man-made and flammable.

Derrick King’s homeless camp was on top of the slough. He was searching for what was left of the belongings of a friend who lived under the bridge.

He said items collected by the homeless fueled the fire.

"You can see it wasn’t just a grass fire by looking around," King said.

Initial police reports say the destructive blaze started as a warming fire, or homeless inhabitants under the bridge trying to stay warm in temperatures that dropped into the 30s.

A man, who did not identify himself, told FOX40 he is one of four inhabitants under the bridge. He said one of them fell asleep, leaving his warming fire unattended and that a nearby blanket caught fire.

It was no surprise to the fire department that there is an uptick in warming fires when the winter arrives. Among the rubble were stacks of firewood.

King said he knows all about the cold.

"I’ve just learned how to make a pretty good fire that is safe. Mishaps happen and people who are not responsible cause things like this to happen," he said.

Once the fire got out of control, it took off fast.

It’s hard to put a value on what was lost, but lives were at risk. King said one of the inhabitants left his blind dog behind to perish.

"He said he had to choose between his life and his dog and he went and grabbed the guy," King explained.

The homeless inhabitants who escaped the fire were already moving back underneath the bridge.

The Stockton Fire Department says it understands the need for the homeless to have fires for cooking and staying warm. They caution homeless campers to restrict them to barbecue size fires. Officials say homeless campfires this time of year are especially hazardous because natural fuels are so dry.