Local firefighters were called out to two unoccupied structure fires within 24 hours of each other last week and Daniel Pacheco, Socorro Fire Department Shift Captain, is concerned about the uptick of fires.
“The call volume is just insane right now. It’s kind of unheard of to keep having fires, lately it’s been three to four fires a month for us. That’s crazy, especially when we’ve been used to one every six months or every blue moon,” Pacheco said.
On January 31, a fire broke out at the intersection of Fifth and Otero Streets in Socorro, which required the mutual aid of the Socorro, Lemitar/Midway and San Antonio fire departments to bring under control.
According to Socorro Fire Department, Chief Lawrence Baca, it’s the third time firefighters have responded to that same location. They believe the fires are being caused by homeless individuals squatting in abandoned buildings, starting fires to keep warm.
Baca said he contacted the owner who told him he just spent $5,000 boarding up and securing the buildings and he still can’t keep people out.
Less than 24 hours later, firefighters once again were called out to a structure fire at an unoccupied home on Quigg street off Bagley Avenue. This fire is believed to be caused by squatters, as well. Pacheco said the fire resulted in a “total loss” of the home.
“As far as what’s happening lately, it’s been squatters. That’s the hardest thing is trying to keep them out. I understand that they don’t want to be there when it burns down, but you know, they just bounce and go to the next place and do it again,” Pacheco said.
He said that he has compassion for people who don’t have anywhere to go and who are just trying to keep warm and survive, but he said, “breaking into someone’s property, and lighting a fire is still wrong; I wish they would get help.”
Pacheco said the increase of fire calls has been hard for their small department to handle. Often, they are called in multiple directions at once and, on top of that, it’s difficult for the crew when all of them are already doing a lot of overtime. He said they work 48-hour shifts and often must take on more hours on top of that.
“It seems like it might get to a point where it gets so shorthanded that we’re going to have no people responding to any calls in the city because we’re out in the county,” Pacheco said. “It spreads us so thin that the calls are getting backed up.”
Pacheco said that it’s hard to know who is to blame in some of these situations and he doesn’t have any answers on a solution. He believes that most homeowners do what they can to protect their vacant homes, but people still manage to break in.
“We’re getting to the point where it’s like, we don’t know what to do,” Pacheco said.
Shay Kelley, director of Puerto Seguro Safe Harbor, believes the rise in fires caused by homeless individuals are just one symptom of a community in crisis; she would like to see a permanent overnight shelter facility available for emergency situations.
“It’s no surprise to me that buildings are burning down at all because the more we neglect these very obvious crises within our community, and until we address them, we’re going to continue to see these kinds of symptomatic results of allowing people to suffer,” Kelley said. “People are freezing, and they’re going to go into these abandoned buildings and they’re going to do whatever they can to survive, which I don’t think anybody can fault them for that.”
Puerto Seguro Safe Harbor, in Socorro, is a non-profit day facility with free shower facilities, clothing and food. They offer many services such as connecting people to service agencies that can help with education, employment, counseling and can help people pay rent and electricity to prevent homelessness.
Puerto Seguro opens overnight on an emergency basis when temperatures drop to 32 degrees at night, but Kelley said it’s not enough.
“It was just born out of necessity because people were dying of exposure, but we have no budget for it so it’s completely volunteer run,” Kelley said.
The problem, according to Kelley, is that they don’t have enough space or cots to serve everyone who needs one. Right now, they can fit about 13 people but the need for shelter capacity is more like 20 to 30 people.
In the last few years, she has seen a dramatic rise in homelessness and need within the Socorro community, which she attributes to the opioid epidemic.
“When we were talking about meth and heroin, it was a different landscape in the community than it is today with fentanyl. Fentanyl is killing people everywhere and because of trauma and unresolved trauma, we’ve got deep issues in this community that need to be addressed,” Kelley said.
Kelley said generational trauma, poverty and drugs, compounded with the abundance of abandoned buildings, contributes to the problem. She said that it’s important that the abandoned building problem is dealt within the community.
“I don’t think anybody would argue that that’s a problem. We have a ton of abandoned buildings. And they sit there for entirely too long,” Kelley said.
Kelley said that sometimes she gets criticized for giving out tents and sleeping bags, but she said until there is a permanent facility, she won’t let people die in the street from exposure.
“I care about them, they’re our family members; they’re important members of the community, Kelley said. “They deserve a right to life.”