An RV caught fire in our neighborhood Sunday morning around 3:30, killing the occupant. The trailer was part of a small group of people camped out along the park across the street. The fire investigator says it looks accidental on its face, and the occupant died trying to get out.
This particular block has had RV and car camping for a while now. There are a few regulars who come and go, spacing out their visits. This trailer and its owner, Wayne, were a pretty regular feature for months.
Wayne had a couple of webcams on improvised masts, and some of the folks sleeping in cars and vans around his rig said it helped them feel safer because everyone knew someone was watching. I get the impression he was something of a local resource: People came to him when they were in distress and he’d briefly put them up or support them. We think he may have been involved in a scuffle with an abuser when he got between the guy and his wife. My son saw the abuser handcuffed on the sidewalk in front of the house while my wife and I were away yesterday, and the incident fueled (unsubstantiated) rumors that someone had firebombed the trailer.
I only talked to him twice. He came over to tell me he’d spotted people scoping out the trailer I’ve got in my driveway and had confronted them. One time, when someone had come through with a huge load of trashy stuff he reassured me they were going to be moving on soon (and they were gone that night). My wife and son talked to him a few times more. He recently told us he had a stroke, and when I saw him outside his trailer his arm was dangling and he was limping.
My wife woke me up last night about 3:30 after hearing a group of teenagers pounding on doors to alert neighbors of the fire, and we stood watching the trailer burn. Flames went 10 or 15 feet into the air. I thought briefly about going over, but had seen propane tanks around his trailer in the past, and it was engulfed by the time I knew what was going on. The fire department arrived and it took a while to put it out. The flames kept popping back up. After an hour or so, they went into the trailer and found Wayne, who’d been trying to get out when they found him. My wife watched them carry his body away.
Sunday morning, first thing, the vultures turned up. We could hear people cutting up Wayne’s two cars for their catalytic converters. We saw people trying to jimmy the doors, then heard an alarm go off when they succeeded. One person told us Wayne had sold him the cars so it was fine for him to cut them to bits on the street. The police told us they couldn’t do anything since “technically there’s not an owner now,” even though one of the folks camped in the area said he has a daughter. They’ve performed similarly convenient readings of the law around the noise ordinance, which goes down great after sitting on the non-emergency line on hold for 75 minutes.
As the day progressed, a sense of agitation and tension grew. Someone spray-painted the burned out trailer, and more people were around picking through things, and stripping the cars for parts. What had been a relatively quiet situation has flipped over to even more strangers coming around.
A neighbor from around the block came over later in the morning. She told us about how she and her husband had asked some RV campers to move on because their generator was too loud to bear, and ran day and night. Those folks drove around the corner and had parked in front of our house for a while, agreeing to stop running the generator after 10 p.m. when my wife asked, and then leaving when she told them it was just too loud. They left a non-operating car they’re wrenching on late into the evening, now.
Our neighbor says other folks are beginning to get impatient, so we’ll probably get together with people who have spoken up with each other and talk things through. One of our other neighbors is apparently losing his shit and shouting at people who sleep in the park. Others are talking about moving because, while the park itself is free of camping, the streets around it are home to a constantly changing crew of RVs, vans, cars, and occasionally tents pitched right against them.
When we’ve talked about the situation, we’ve almost felt lucky: The people parking on our block have been relatively quiet. There was some high drama earlier in the year, but the people who brought that were run off by the more permanent RV/car residents … shouted down the street and out of the neighborhood at two in the morning. One other guy took a leak on the street in front of my wife, and he was gone the next day. The people we’ve talked to have kept to themselves, some coming and going two and three days at a time, maybe on a rotation to keep from wearing out their welcome. We haven’t had the needle or feces dumps I’ve heard about elsewhere.
Today PBOT came out and wrapped Wayne’s burned out trailer in cellophane and said they’ll be moving it. They’re also sending a street response team, since some of the folks who were camped out around Wayne’s trailer are saying they want help getting off the streets. Al is going to talk to the DV victim Wayne was helping to see if she can help her find shelter of some kind.
I have a lot more thoughts, but not a lot of interest in writing them down right now.
I just remember watching Wayne’s trailer burn, and a photographer (I’m guessing from the Oregonian) come and go, then reading the “coverage,” then watching the things Wayne left behind picked over and carried off by thieves, and I thought that unlike every other story I’ve read about camp fires or deaths, I knew a thing about this person and what he was to the people around him, so I could write it down, and have.