Efforts to douse American River Parkway fires bogged in controversy

Video: Controlled burns prevent fires along the American River Parkway

Prescribed burns in the American River Parkway invariably provoke controversy in nearby neighborhoods. Video by Randy Pench.
Up Next
Prescribed burns in the American River Parkway invariably provoke controversy in nearby neighborhoods. Video by Randy Pench.

It’s been another bad fire season on the tinder-dry American River Parkway, and Sacramento’s recreational jewel, a 23-mile swath of natural habitat that runs through a densely populated urban area, is proving again that it has two facets.

One is a paradise for cyclists and nature lovers. The other invites illegal camping by the homeless and offers a landscape of dry brush that can easily be set ablaze and threaten surrounding neighborhoods with smoke and fire.

That has been especially true in recent years, when scarce rains have created drier fuel for wildfires, leading to more frequent and intense conflagrations, fire officials said.

“The fires are burning hotter and larger the last couple of years because of the drought,” said Chris Harvey, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department.

Already this year, eight significant wildfires have burned on the lower reaches of the American River Parkway, roughly between Cal Expo and the Sacramento River, along with a number of spot fires. They include four fires that broke out Tuesday near Discovery Park and the parkway’s Woodlake area, near Northgate Boulevard and Highway 160. Last summer, a 160-acre fire blazed near Cal Expo on the Fourth of July.

Investigators are looking into possible causes of recent wildfires, including arson, but have yet to reach conclusions.

Though fires on the parkway are predictable each summer, some may be avoidable, officials said. Measures such as prescribed burns and removal of illegal campers can help limit fuel and ignition sources. Those measures, however, have proved controversial – leading to frustration and curtailing fire-prevention activities.

Harvey, the Fire Department spokesman, said prescribed burns make a difference. Opposition by residents of the older, leafy Woodlake neighborhood prompted the Fire Department in late spring to stop a prescribed burn in the nearby parkway. The same area where the burn was scheduled, then canceled, burned ferociously in a wildfire Tuesday, he said.

After firefighters canceled the burn at Woodlake, they moved it to an area of the parkway near the state fairgrounds at Cal Expo.

Recovering after the prescribed burn, that field was already thick with bright green grass this week. It served as a firebreak for a wildfire near Cal Expo on July 13 that burned 11 acres, Harvey said. If the field had been covered in tall brown grass, like surrounding areas of the parkway, he said, flying embers would likely have ignited it and continued to spread the flames.

A similar preburned area at Woodlake could have limited the damage of Tuesday’s fire, especially by keeping the fire from igniting tall bushes and trees and moving vertically, Harvey said. Instead of flames staying low to the ground, as in a controlled burn, they leaped 20 feet or 30 feet in the air on Tuesday, making the fire much harder for firefighters to control, he said.

“Every summer, the parkway is going to burn,” Harvey said. “Once you accept that, the idea of burning it in a controlled, strategic way makes sense rather than letting it burn where it wants to.”

The people with the matches are still there, and we’re left with scorched earth.

Bill Farrell, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association

Others say the danger isn’t the fuel load but the people starting fires. Illegal campers, mainly homeless people, are often blamed for igniting blazes on purpose or accidentally, sometimes by making campfires.

Bill Farrell, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association, regularly bicycles to work on the parkway. He said some Woodlake residents oppose controlled burns because they damage the environment while doing little to keep wildfires from starting. County officials who oversee the parkway aren’t doing enough rid it of illegal campers, he said.

“The people with the matches are still there, and we’re left with scorched earth,” Farrell said.

Dozens of illegal encampments large and small dotted the woodlands and fields in the area of Tuesday’s fires. One prominent camp included four large makeshift tents, the biggest draped in an American flag. It also had trash bins, shopping carts, a wheelbarrow and an overpowering smell of human waste. Other small camps were tucked away deep in the trees.

The burned remnants of two other camps – a shopping cart, fire pits and charred pages of a Bible – sat amid scorched earth in the biggest of Tuesday’s fires, which burned several acres of grassland, trees and shrubs.

Phil Serna, chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, took issue with the idea that the county was not doing enough to reduce illegal camping and other wildfire risks.

In the past four years, he said, the county enacted bans on smoking and barbecuing in the parkway, except in landscaped picnic grounds. It nearly doubled the number of rangers and stepped up patrols for illegal campers. Rangers and law enforcement officers coordinated their efforts to serve arrest warrants and oust illegal campers. And social workers regularly offer assistance, including motel vouchers, to those who have nowhere else to go.

The county has funded efforts to reduce wildfires through mowing grass, controlled burns and trimming trees to prevent fires from moving vertically, he said.

“The county has made significant advances to address illegal camping head-on,” Serna said. “We’ve appropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two budget cycles for reducing fuel loads in the parkway and to keep people from camping in deep vegetation where they shouldn’t be camping.”

But under the terms of a 2009 legal settlement, rangers and officers can’t simply tear down illegal camps. After civil rights attorneys challenged the practice, rangers have to give campers an opportunity to remove their belongings or to store and inventory the items for later retrieval.

“It’s a very unfortunate conclusion of the litigation that it makes it more difficult to move people off the parkway,” Serna said.

74Number of illegal camping citations issued on the parkway over the past month

Scott Stephens, a wildfire prevention expert at UC Berkeley, said he regularly biked on the American River Parkway as an undergraduate student at California State University, Sacramento.

The drought has certainly increased the flammability of live vegetation, he said, though the summer’s dry conditions and brown grass are nothing new. He questioned the efficacy of controlled burns.

“A lot of that parkway is annual grass,” Stephens said. “If you burn the grasslands it’s going to reduce the fuel load for that season, but it’s going to come back next year.”

And since humans are a constant presence on the parkway, accidental ignitions are bound to continue, he said.

Stephens suggested that a good prevention method might be “livestock grazing – goats and low-density cattle.” The animals keep down the fuel load in the hills above Berkeley and elsewhere in the East Bay, he noted.

On the parkway they could be corralled with portable electric fences, he said. Goats would eat the grass and also consume ladder fuels, the shrubs and low-lying tree branches that let fires climb.

Of course, livestock might prove controversial, too, he said.

Prescribed burns in the American River Parkway invariably provoke controversy in nearby neighborhoods. Video by Randy Pench.

Twenty firefighters spent Wednesday morning setting fires and containing them, part of the largest live-training exercise ever held on the American River Parkway. Video by Hector Amezcua of The Sacramento Bee.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

Related stories from Sacramento Bee