A rapidly spreading vegetation fire broke out in a homeless encampment Wednesday afternoon and caused the evacuation of homes in an East Palo Alto neighborhood.
Crews from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District responded shortly after 2 p.m. to the wind-driven fire, which was threatening residences on Shorebreeze Court and along Beech Street, fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement.
The fire broke out in recently cut dry grass and was moving into thicker vegetation and trees bordering Shorebreeze. Police evacuated the homes, according to the online safety-alert app Citizen.
Firefighters with hose lines quickly flanked two sides of the 2-acre fire to prevent it from jumping into the neighborhood. A mobile light-duty rescue squad drove up the center of the fire to extinguish hot spots. Smoke could be seen for miles and was blowing primarily into Palo Alto, Schapelhouman said.
Three fire engines, a rescue squad and two battalion chiefs with 13 personnel brought the blaze under control within 10 minutes, but firefighters stayed on-scene until 3:31 p.m. to make sure the fire was completely out, according to Schapelhouman.
Investigators found several encampments of homeless people and suspect that drug paraphernalia at the fire's origin point might have ignited the recently cut grass. It was the third fire of the day, with the two other much smaller fires attributed to a man setting small fires along the U.S. Highway 101 and University Avenue corridor in the morning, he said.
"We've seen a major increase in the number of encampment fires in the last couple of months as well as fireworks-related fires, especially here in East Palo Alto. We will be up-staffing with more units and personnel for the upcoming holiday," Schapelhouman said. "As seen today, even cut-down grass can burn aggressively, especially if driven by the bay winds out here along the edge of the city, especially if an ignition source is introduced."
The fire destroyed some fences, but no homes ignited.
"So all in all, aggressive firefighting and helpful neighbors saved the day today," he said.