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With Stage 3 fire restrictions, homeless residents become evacuees

About 40 people moved to Escalante Middle School
A campsite west of Durango was closed Tuesday about two hours before La Plata County commissioners approved Stage 3 fire restrictions, which prohibit encampments. About 40 residents went to an evacuation shelter at Escalante Middle School, where they will receive the same benefits as residents evacuated from the 416 Fire.

A homeless camp west of Durango city limits was closed and moved to Escalante Middle School on Tuesday shortly before La Plata County commissioners enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions.

One of the many restrictions associated with Stage 3 fire restrictions is to ban encampments on public lands, resulting in the indefinite closure of the area.

Sheriff Sean Smith said like all people living in areas that have been evacuated, people who had been living in the homeless camp have the option of going to the shelter at Escalante Middle School.

“Everyone is being treated identical,” Smith said.

Chris Burke, spokesman with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said authorities were concerned about the health and safety of homeless campers, especially with the thick smoke that blankets Durango each night.

“We wanted to make sure that they were in a safer place,” he said. “And we didn’t want any more fires up there.”

The homeless camp was expected to close by June 30. The city plans to open a more permanent site near the Durango Dog Park.

About 55 people living in the county’s temporary camp were given an evacuation notice at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office used a bus to help transport homeless campers and their belongings to the evacuation center at Escalante Middle School.

“They had the option to either stay in the gym on a cot or in a field in a roped-off area like the other evacuees,” Burke said.

About 40 homeless residents went to the school. All but two or three are camping in a field near the school. The other two or three requested cots inside the school. The shelter had about 20 evacuees before the homeless residents started arriving.

Those in the camp weren’t pleased with the news, but everyone was cooperative with law enforcement, he said.

Some people living in the homeless camp have opted to live with family members rather than move into the evacuation center. The Sheriff’s Office continues to look at other options for relocating homeless residents.

Axis Health System and volunteers aided law enforcement in dismantling the camp, Burke said. The volunteers and the Sheriff’s Office offered rides in a community bus to the evacuation site.

Campers are allowed to bring only necessities with them to the evacuation center. The Sheriff’s Office will store any items that aren’t allowed in the evacuation center and will return them when campers move on or are allowed to relocate to a new campground.

The Sheriff’s Office made a sweep of a hillside west of Durango to make sure no one else was camping in the area and found no evidence of anyone living on the hill, Burke said.

asemadeni@durangoherald.com

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