An emergency shelter for evacuees of the 416 Fire closed Monday, and while most people have been able to return to their homes, those living homeless in Durango have few options for places to stay.
Public lands managed by the San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, La Plata County and city of Durango are closed because of high fire danger.
As a temporary fix, the city of Durango will allow homeless residents to continue to use outdoor facilities at the emergency shelter, at Escalante Middle School, for another week.
Beyond that, it is not clear where homeless people may go.
For the past couple of years, many homeless residents in the Durango area have stayed at a makeshift and technically illegal campsite just west of city limits on property owned by La Plata County.
As a result of high fire danger, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office closed the scattered, dispersed campsite in May and moved people to a new location on a barren acre of ground, also located in west Durango.
But that site, too, was closed last week when La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions, which closed access to all county open space and public lands.
About 55 people living in the temporary camp were given an evacuation notice at 9 a.m. June 12.
Those people were told they would be treated no differently than any other evacuated resident, and were given the option to stay at the evacuation shelter at Escalante Middle School. About 40 homeless people went to the shelter, aided by a bus that helped move their belongings. Only two or three people slept on cots inside the school; the others chose to camp in a field at the school.
In the days since, most evacuation orders have been lifted, with the exception of homes in the Falls Creek area. But Stage 3 fire restrictions remain in place, which prohibit encampments such as the temporary homeless camp being used before the 416 Fire, leaving homeless residents with no designated place to camp.
La Plata County was already planning to close its temporary campsite, based on the city of Durango’s plan to open a camp by June 30 adjacent to the Durango Dog Park.
But the Dog Park site has elicited some pushback because it is on a former uranium mill used during the Manhattan Project. The state health department has sent a letter to city officials recommending a complete health-risk assessment based on the radioactive materials that once existed at the location.
City officials have denied the possibility of any health risks but have agreed to test the site at the Dog Park for radon.
City Councilor Dean Brookie said Monday the city hopes to conduct the tests before the homeless camp opens, possibly as early as next week. In the meantime, about 10 homeless people remain at Escalante Middle School.
The Durango City Council plans to discuss the issue Monday night.