There are sections of the American River Parkway that look like another planet.
Stephen Green was standing in front of one of those places on Friday. The ground was gray and powdery. Charred logs lay splintered on the ground. What was left of a small tree stood by itself among the emptiness.
Was this the fire that burned 30 acres in early August? Or was it the big one on the Fourth of July that nearly messed up a fireworks show at Cal Expo and delayed a Sacramento Republic FC soccer match? It could have been the blaze that shut down the Cap City Freeway during the commute one evening in July.
One more question: Who can we blame for this?
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“People have to respect this resource,” Green said. “And I don’t think a lot of them do.”
Green has lived in a home that backs up to the parkway for 34 years. He’s president of the Save the American River Association and is heavily invested in what happens here.
So is everyone in this city. By some estimates, the parkway gets 8 million visitors a year. You won’t find a natural resource this big running through the middle of many American cities.
There are fires on the parkway every summer. It’s just that there have been a lot more this year, more than anyone can remember. City firefighters have battled a half-dozen or so blazes already this year that they would consider major. The one on the Fourth of July destroyed 160 acres.
Fire Department officials think the big blazes have been caused by humans. The drought has made the situation worse, but irresponsible human behavior is acting like a match strike.
People clearly weren’t being sensible because the county had to ban smoking in the unpaved areas of the parkway. They also limited charcoal grills to picnic spaces.
The homeless are the easiest targets for blame. There are camps buried deep in the brush of the parkway, especially in the area where the big fires have broken out. Some homeless people set fires to cook or keep warm.
Ryan Loofbourrow is the head of Sacramento Steps Forward, which advocates for homeless services and helps find housing for homeless people. He doesn’t think the homeless population on the parkway is increasing and doesn’t feel threatened when he’s on the bike trail. But he also understands when people are quick to blame the homeless for the conditions in the park, whether it’s trash or fires.
“Everyone agrees homelessness needs to be solved,” he said, “but the devil’s in the details.”
Green doesn’t put all the blame on the homeless, and he spends as much time on the parkway as anyone. Green said he’s seen people smoking while riding their bikes in the park.
When it comes to fires in the parkway, it seems there’s enough blame to go around.