A fire sparked by a homeless encampment under a bridge in Waynesville on Wednesday night burned up a fiber optic trunk line, leading to phone, cellular and internet outages across the county.

Conduit carrying AT&T fiber lines are mounted to the underside of the bridge spanning railroad tracks below Russ Avenue. The fire melted the conduit and disrupted a host of telecom services carried over the fiber — from credit card transactions to cell towers.

The severed fiber line knocked out internet to all of Haywood County Schools, which was forced to cancel school Thursday as a result.

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TOTAL LOSS — AT&T crews have a big job ahead to replace fiber trunk lines on the underside of a Russ Avenue bridge after it was destroyed by an accidental homeless fire Wednesday night. Steven Kirkpatrick and Eric Whitson wrestle to remove old conduit, battling low head room above them and a sheer drop-off below.

Smoke coming from under the bridge was spotted shortly before midnight Wednesday by a police officer on patrol. The fire had fully engulfed the underside of the bridge by the time the Waynesville fire department arrived, fueled by sprawling heaps of junk stockpiled under the bridge by those in the homeless encampment.

The fire is under investigation, however it was most likely unintentional, according to Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb.

“The homeless were down there trying to stay warm,” Webb said.

The bridge has long been known as a homeless hangout, providing shelter from the elements. The sizable encampment included makeshift homes from cardboard boxes, bedding and mountains of sundry possessions crammed into the voids below the I-beams of the bridge deck.

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MAKESHIFT QUARTERS — A sprawling homeless encampment under the Russ Avenue railroad bridge has mountains of amassed belongings and piles of trash crammed into the nooks between I-beams. The fire ripped through the encampment on one side of the bridge, but the one on the opposite side of the bridge span survived.

The fire raged through the encampment on one side of the bridge, charring the heaps of amassed belongings beyond recognition. A kerosene heater found among the burned wreckage was the likely source of the fire, Webb said.

The homeless people living under the bridge had cleared out by the time the fire department arrived. While the fire is under investigation, it’s unlikely that whoever started it will be found. Even if they were, it wouldn’t be considered arson since it was most likely an accident.

Fighting the fire

Firefighters faced dangerous conditions as they battled the blaze in the dark. The bridge spans a 50-foot-high ravine with steep, sheer slopes.

The fire was at the top of the slope, reachable only by snaking ledges cut into the dirt embankment to reach the various nooks on the underside of the bridge. One misstep on the precarious paths could have sent firefighters plunging to the bottom of the ravine.

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DANGEROUS SCENE — Fire fighters responding to the middle-of-the-night blaze worked in crowded conditions, hemmed between the bridge deck while balancing on narrow ledges above a ravine plummeting to the railroad tracks below.

Firefighters also had to battle low head room as they crawled along the ledges to reach the burning inferno of stockpiled junk wedged into the upper recesses of the deck bridge. Firefighters had to drag items out, one by one, before extinguishing them.

“You basically have to rake it out and saturate it with water,” Webb said.

The Waynesville Fire Department was aided by the Saunook, Maggie Valley, Center Pigeon and Junaluska fire departments.

Damaged lines

AT&T crews arrived on the scene around 1 a.m., but were unable to begin repairs until day break.

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“Our team faced challenges accessing the damage initially due to excessive smoke in the manhole where our equipment was located,” said Megan Daly, AT&T spokesperson. “We also had to wait on clearance from the Fire Department and Department of Transportation prior to beginning our work.”

A DOT bridge inspector has deemed the bridge structurally safe, according to a DOT spokesperson.

AT&T crews — made up of around two dozen workers and eight utility trucks — worked through the morning to restore service. By mid-day, they had devised a work-around by lashing bundles of loose cables to the bridge’s railing.

Under the bridge deck, AT&T’s infrastructure was a total loss, with the conduit and fiber lines incinerated by the fire.

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BIG RESPONSE — More than two dozen AT&T field workers, including Eric Whitson of Avery County, descended on the Russ Avenue bridge fire Thursday morning. Bundles of lines are now lashed to the bridge railing as a work-around until the conduit under the bridge can be replaced.

“AT&T had to make temporary repairs to get service up and running, then they’ll have to come back and do a full repair,” Webb said. “It’s a large loss for the utility company.”

Homeless camp

As for the homeless encampment, the side where the fire occurred is now uninhabitable, although the makeshift homesites on the opposite side of the bridge are still intact.

Waynesville Police Lt. Tyler Trantham said the bridge has been a go-to source of shelter for homeless people for years.

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TRASH HEAP — Heaps of trash end up at the bottom of the embankment below the homeless encampment under the Russ Avenue bridge. The bridge squatters are trespassing on railroad property, but are largely left alone.

“It’s known as the place to go and build a fire and find shelter, but we honestly hadn’t had a call or concerns from there for quite some time,” Trantham said.

The property is owned by the railroad, and the encampments are located on the slope high above the tracks. The railroad hasn’t complained about the trespassers.

Even if the railroad called on the police department to remove the homeless encampment, keeping the trespassers out from under the bridge would likely be a futile game of cat and mouse. Occupants of the homeless camp come and go, with a revolving door any given night or cold spell.

“It is a very transient, fluid situation,” Trantham said. “It’s not like it’s a group of the same three people living under the bridge for the whole year.”

Reporter Kyle Perrotti contributed to this story

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