The first attack on the encampment allegedly occurred in the early hours of Jan. 4 among tents huddled on a strip of city property next to St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish in Queen Anne.
John, a veteran who uses a wheelchair and who lives in the small encampment, was across the street near Metropolitan Market when he saw someone dump gasoline on his tent and then watched it melt in the blaze. His wallet and phone were also destroyed in the fire.
“Why would you do that to us?” he said, recalling the incident. “I mean, we’re homeless.”
The following morning, volunteers from the church came by with wagons. Each Sunday, they bring snacks, clothing, toiletries and supplies for the residents. “Driving up the streets you could see the tents, just burnt little bits of plastic,” said Barbara Potgieter, a volunteer with St. Paul’s. “It was really horrible.”
Three tents were burned, including one a block away. The people in the encampment woke up in time to get out to safety. A block away, a man was injured on his legs and feet in the fire, Potgieter said.
The following night, a person who appeared similar to the previous arsonist destroyed a Honey Bucket the church provides for public use in the parking lot, lit a fire in a fountain on church grounds and tried to ignite a metal fence.
A St. Paul’s neighbor said four fires were set from Jan. 4-5. The neighbor wrote a letter to city leaders and the media asking for help to address “the real and present danger” of arson for the camp residents, saying the residents lost everything they owned in the fires and could have lost their lives and that the second fires seemed to be set in reaction to the neighbors trying to help the residents.
Church volunteers called the police after the first fire. “They marked down the tent fire as a rubbish fire, which made me really mad,” Potgieter said.
Potgieter’s observation was confirmed by a narrative summary of the police response to the incident provided to Real Change by the Seattle Police Department. At first, fire investigators thought a cooking fire might have started one of the tent fires, according to the police report.
There was a dramatic increase in fires at outdoor encampments last year, The Seattle Times reported. From January to August 2020, the Fire Department recorded 420 encampment fires. The same period the year before, they recorded 292 fires.
Outreach workers told The Times that the increase could be due to more people cooking outdoors, though encampment fires are unduly blamed on residents but are often started by outsiders, like the recent Queen Anne fires.
Security camera footage of the alleged attack on the encampment appears to show a person deliberately using gasoline to light several fires, according to Potgieter. “They came prepared,” she said. They had masks, gloves and several gasoline cans. “It was not somebody walking by.”
The person must have used a vehicle to transport these supplies, Potgieter speculated. They took about an hour to set everything on fire. “That’s attempted murder,” she said.
A police officer responded to the fire on Jan. 3, and saw a tent ablaze, according to the SPD report. A resident told the responding officer that a man who had been staying in a tent in the encampment for the past few days may have set the fire.
The Fire Department investigated and forwarded a report to the Police Department’s Arson & Bomb Squad. Members of the squad met with church volunteers.
The unit’s investigation is now inactive. “The detectives looked into it, followed up on all possible leads, determined they had reached a dead end and have inactivated it,” SPD spokesperson Detective Patrick Michaud said by email.
The reason for the alleged attack is unknown. Encampment resident Michael Parr said he saw the man set the fires mutter about trying to burn rats — and that he used constant racist language. Other residents wondered if the man was targeting veterans in the alleged attack.
The church hired a private security guard for two nights following the fires. The alleged arsonist hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
“People were really shaken up,” Potgieter said. “That was kind of heartbreaking to see, people who are really vulnerable subject to this kind of violence.”
A month later, the mood in the encampment has calmed somewhat, Potgieter said. Encampment residents Parr and John said they feel fairly safe staying in the encampment despite what happened.
St. Paul’s and the encampment received an outpouring of support from the community, who donated 11 new tents, enough for everyone who wanted one.
Potgieter and Adrienne Elliott, another volunteer with St. Paul’s, are lost as to why someone would set fire to tents in an encampment. But they believe it is linked to the kind of negative reaction the parish has received from the community for aiding a visible encampment, ranging from harassing phone calls to disapproval from some surrounding businesses.
“The amount of hate that someone would have to have to actually act in such a way is unbelievable,” Elliott said.
Read more in the Feb. 17-23, 2021 issue.