Homeless turn to mountain camping to avoid city struggles

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BOULDER, Colo. -- Taxpayers in Colorado are on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the cost of fighting Boulder's recent Sunshine Fire.

Investigators are still looking for clues that could point them to the person or people responsible.

Boulder County sheriff's deputies said all of their evidence points to a campfire at what appears to have been a transient camp site. The cost of fighting the fire is estimated to be more than $730,000. The question remains: Who started it?

"At this point, we're trying to gather leads from the community," said Cmdr. Mike Wagner with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.

Investigators said the point of origin appears to be a homeless campsite. The area, popular for hiking, is also popular for those who find it difficult to camp in the city.

Happy Benaim is an urban, sometimes rural, camper who prefers living near Boulder Creek. When the Sunshine Fire started, he said he was at the base of the foothills, waking up to that wildfire smell.

"This whole area filled with smoke," Benaim said. "You could tell something was going on."

He said it's not uncommon to see homeless people lighting fires to make it through cold mountain nights.

"It's just for sheer survival," Benaim said. "There's people that'll light fires just to keep the frostbite off. It's a real thing."

Cities with camping bans, including Denver and Boulder, make it difficult for those without homes to camp in urban areas.

Homeless people said many times, they don't feel safe camping in cities. But Benaim is one who knows mountain camping comes with its own dangers at the hands of Mother Nature.

"It's actually very dry up there, and because it hasn't rained, fire is really a no-no," he said.

Boulder County leaders said fire restrictions are in place, meaning open burning is illegal, especially during high-risk days.

Those who break that law could face $500 citations. Meanwhile, deputies said they're working to reach out to anyone who might be tempted to light a fire.

"We try to educate everyone on these issues, not just one population, transient, homeless," Wagner said.

Deputies attempt to get their message out to hikers and nature enthusiasts as well, making sure they know the law.

No one was reported as injured in the Sunshine Fire and no structures were lost. Crews were still monitoring hot spots as of late Tuesday. The fire is fully contained.

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