‘Wake-up call’: Fire under NE Atlanta bridge shows dangers of homeless camps

Cheshire Bridge Road remains closed as investigation continues
Charred items that may have been part of a homeless encampment were left after a fire off Cheshire Bridge Road early Wednesday.

Credit: Ben Hendren

Credit: Ben Hendren

Charred items that may have been part of a homeless encampment were left after a fire off Cheshire Bridge Road early Wednesday.

The smell of smoke filled the air Thursday under a northeast Atlanta bridge where charred items, including a table, chairs and mattresses, were left on the ground.

Most of the remains looked like household trash now reduced to rubble a day after a fire ignited under a Cheshire Bridge Road overpass during one of the coldest nights of the year. While investigators worked to determine the cause and engineers evaluated the bridge for structural damage, an already vulnerable population was believed to have possibly been the culprit: the homeless community.

“There probably was an encampment right there and they’re trying to stay warm,” Rachel Reynolds with the Atlanta Mission said Thursday.

The city’s fire department told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the investigation continues after a portion of Cheshire Bridge Road had to be closed from Faulkner Road to Wellbourne Drive on Wednesday. A timetable for reopening the busy road and bridge has not been released. They both remained closed Thursday and detours were put in place, creating more headaches for those who live and work in the area.

An AJC photographer and reporter visited underneath the bridge Thursday, allowing an up-close look at the damage and what was left behind.

No details have been released on who or what may have sparked the fire, but it’s a “wake-up call” of the possible dangers of having homeless encampments under bridges and so close to homes and businesses, Reynolds said.

“There are other options. You don’t have to build a fire outside,” she said. “It puts our community in danger and themselves in danger. There are other options.”

On the other side of the bridge from where the fire burned, people had used wooden shipping pallets to form a furnished shelter near the railroad tracks, complete with an entrance gate and a charcoal grill. Next to a cooler inside the makeshift shelter sat a red gas container.

The fire shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday was quickly contained before potentially becoming even more dangerous.

City leaders have made finding permanent homes for the homeless community a priority.

In August, Mayor Ande Dickens issued an executive order launching the Rapid Housing initiative and allocating $4 million to build about 40 units in a parking lot at 184 Forsyth Street. Units are currently being built.

The fire off Cheshire Bridge Road was quickly contained before potentially becoming even more dangerous.

Credit: Ben Hendren

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Hendren

In the Cheshire Bridge Road and Morosgo Drive area, the organization Partners for HOME has housed 39 individuals with others currently in the process, the mayor’s office said. Earlier this month, contractors broke ground on Ralph David House, the former Atlanta Motel, which will become more than 50 units of affordable housing, a spokesperson for Dickens said.

But those who work with the homeless say some people get comfortable living on the streets, may have had a bad experience with shelters, or suffer from mental illness. Warming centers have been open in recent days when temperatures have dropped, and organizations like Atlanta Mission have some emergency beds available to provide shelter from the outdoors.

For residents and business owners in the area, the problem isn’t new. Fires, including smaller ones and larger ones that made headlines throughout the city, have become all too familiar.

A massive fire at an apartment complex about a mile away on Lavista Road was already hampering business. That Nov. 10 blaze, at the Reserve at LaVista Walk, forced road closures in the area. Lavista Road between Cheshire Bridge Road and Citadel Drive will remain closed while the property management company and their contractors determine the ongoing collapse risk, a spokesperson for Atlanta’s Department of Transportation said Thursday.

What appeared to be a homeless camp was underneath a bridge near where a fire burned early Wednesday.

Credit: Jeremy Redmon

icon to expand image

Credit: Jeremy Redmon

Another nearby fire in 2021 rendered the South Fork Peachtree Creek bridge structurally unsafe, requiring it to be demolished and rebuilt. It partially reopened in October 2022, then fully reopened in April of this year.

Another fire broke out in November 2021 under the Cheshire Bridge Road overpass near the Buford Connector. That one was started by “homeless encampment activity,” officials said at the time.

On March 30, 2017, a massive section of I-85 collapsed after a 39-year-old homeless man, Basil Eleby, allegedly set fire to an upholstered chair. The fire ignited high-density polyethylene pipes that the Georgia Department of Transportation was storing under Piedmont Road. Arson charges against Eleby were dropped in exchange for him going through an 18-month diversion program.


If you or someone you know needs housing in Atlanta, contact the Housing Help Center online at https://www.housinghelpcenter.com/ or call 311.