The Monroe County Fire Protection District and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office responded to a fire at a campsite in a wooded area behind a strip mall in the 3000 block of W. Third Street Monday afternoon.
A report of a small outside fire was broadcast on county dispatch radio traffic. Traffic indicated that two men were standing near the fire, and one man was tossing items into a fire. Scanner traffic said the men were described as behaving “erratically.”
Firefighters used a brush truck to bring water to the site and put the fire out. Some concern was expressed on the scanner that people at the site may have used water from a nearby industrial site, and firefighters may need to use hazmat suits. However, the Bloomingtonian asked a deputy at the scene, and he referred questions to the MCSO public information officer. But the firefighters at the scene were not wearing hazmat suits, which would seem to indicate there wasn’t an immediate threat since firefighters are trained for environmental hazards.
At the scene, unhoused community members, including a man who referred to a campsite as a “nomad camp” and himself as a “nomad” told the Bloomingtonian a narrative.
He believes a person who has been experiencing a severe mental health crisis is the one who started the fire. Others at the site agreed. They said they became aware of the fire when they heard small explosions that sounded like gunfire.
Soon a man appeared in tears and told the Bloomingtonian his birth certificate, 100-dollars in cash, his cell phone and backup cell phone, his four-man tent, his one-man tent, his tarp to stay dry, and everything else he had was gone. And that another man had burned his items without any warning.
The man whose stuff was burned then began to look through items left in a shopping cart by the man who allegedly set his property ablaze. Notebooks with writing and the man’s name were found among the items left behind by the alleged arsonist who fled.
A woman who lives at the camp told the Bloomingtonian she wanted to thank the firefighters for their quick response, which kept more things from burning in the fire. But she said they had lost some items in the blaze and asked if the community can bring them hand sanitizer, which they burn to stay warm, propane, and fresh drinking water. She said donors can leave the items by the dumpsters behind the old K-Mart if they don’t want to go into the camp. Forrest Gilmore from Beacon said a team would go to the site and check on the residents to help. Beacon’s phone number is: (812) 334-5734
In an interview, last year during the height of the pandemic, Cindy Chavez at Pantry 279 said drinking water is a common request from community members who are unhoused, and that some had been drinking stream, and pond water, and getting dysentery.
There was a fire in another camp for unhoused community members a couple of years ago, but the suspect in that fire was not the same person as the man believed to have set today’s fire, according to residents.
After firefighters left the area, two MCSO deputies talked to the man who had lost his items in the fire and offered him assistance.