Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: A burning silence in Sacramento

Video: Fire along the parkway extinguished by air, water, boots on the ground

A small grass fire near Discovery Park burned into the tree tops before it was extinguished Monday morning by crews on the ground, a helicopter water drop and water sprayed from a boat. Video by the Sacramento Fire Department.
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A small grass fire near Discovery Park burned into the tree tops before it was extinguished Monday morning by crews on the ground, a helicopter water drop and water sprayed from a boat. Video by the Sacramento Fire Department.

Who knew that an alarming spate of urban fires in Sacramento could inspire silence? Yet that is the situation based on the location of the fires.

It’s all about the location.

If urban fires were occurring frequently in any other densely populated area besides the lower stretch of the American River Parkway, it would be a big story. Politicians would be demanding answers, particularly if the fires were suspected to be caused by humans.

But 15 fires have broken out between Discovery Park and Campus Commons since May 25, according to Sacramento County officials. Officials believe or suspect that humans have caused many if not most of the fires, either accidentally or intentionally.

These fires have burned near businesses and homes and widely used bike trails. They have destroyed the area’s natural beauty and filled the air with smoke.

Where’s the outrage? Where’s the fear for public safety?

Why isn’t there more concern that four fires burned on Aug. 11 alone near Discovery Park?

Local media accounts of the Aug. 11 fires described flames jumping Garden Highway and threatening an apartment complex. They described panicked residents turning on their own water hoses because they feared Sacramento firefighters wouldn’t arrive in time to save their homes.

On Monday, another fire broke out near Discovery Park, one that forced Sacramento firefighters to battle the blaze with water cannons shot from a boat on the American River. Large trees weakened by previous fires had made it too hazardous to approach on the ground.

“Limbs started falling,” Chris Harvey of the Sacramento Fire Department told Capital Public Radio. “It’s very scary. You hear the cracking noise. The captains that are back there working the crews basically alerted everybody, and everyone backed up.”

Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor, said that county officials – including county CEO Brad Hudson – went to inspect the fire damages on Monday and found a camp stove resting in the middle of a burned campsite.

That’s why people in Sacramento mostly have stayed silent one dangerous fire after another.

Sacramento County is far too permissive in allowing illegal camping along the lower stretch of the American River Parkway. And fear of offending people discourages honest discussion about the dangers being caused by campers, the majority of whom are homeless.

Once you invoke the word “homeless” in Sacramento, an army of advocates puts its dukes up and effectively scares a liberal community into silence.

Even those of us in the media dance around the issue. The parkway, a jewel of an urban forest, is burning, but you can’t talk about the cause of it without someone calling you callous or insensitive.

Meanwhile, the lives of firefighters are being risked and local fire resources are being stretched by one parkway blaze after another.

But this isn’t simply about political correctness. Legal barriers prevent Sacramento County from carrying out what should be its most important mission – protecting public safety.

In 2009, the county entered into an agreement with homeless advocates that changed how officers police illegal campers on the parkway. It prevents officers from seizing any property in a homeless encampment on the American River – or anywhere else – without first posting written notice on the encampment that gives the owner of the property 48 hours notice to move his or her stuff.

Because of this settlement – part of a lawsuit filed against the county and several other entities by lawyer Mark Merin – county officials say keeping the parkway safe has become particularly vexing. Once county officials post their 48-hour notices, many camps are simply moved to another part of the parkway and the process begins again.

What if county park rangers or anyone else notices cooking stoves amid the thicket of vegetation under the Highway 160 overpass? Park rangers can remove illegal campers if they come upon them. But if they find an abandoned camp, they can’t remove personal items without that 48-hour notice.

“The discussions about people in the parkway have centered on civil liberties (of the illegal campers),” Serna said. “But what about public safety for everyone else? Now you have public safety personnel at risk.”

On Tuesday, Serna met with city officials to discuss ways to stop these fires from happening.

“We need to have that conversation,” he said. “It doesn’t take a fire investigator to realize that if you have more people camping on the parkway, there is a great possibility of igniting fires.”

The county, the city, fire officials, homeless advocates all need to revisit the settlement agreement that forces the charade of a 48-hour notice to remove illegal encampments at the American River Parkway. If they don’t, the parkway will continue to burn.

There have been fires north of H Street bridge on the upper stretch of the parkway. But by and large, the 23-mile parkway changes and improves the farther you get from downtown. Most illegal camping is concentrated between Discovery Park and Campus Commons, an area that’s close to Loaves and Fishes – the largest homeless charity in Sacramento.

“You can see the fires at night,” said Andy Hernandez, a Woodlake resident who owns a software company. He was speaking of homeless encampments he sees when he rides his bike on the parkway near downtown Sacramento.

A local resident since 1997, Hernandez describes two parkways. His parkway – the one closer to the city of Sacramento – is dangerous at night. Bikers have to be leery of pit bulls that belong to homeless people camping in the parkway. He said he’s seen law enforcement helicopters chase away teenagers illegally burning campfires north of the H Street bridge, the nicer and safer side of the parkway.

“(That) parkway is a place where bikers, runners and walkers feel safe alone,” Hernandez said. “Our parkway is a place where nobody feels safe alone.”

What is it going to take for this situation to change? Where is Mayor Kevin Johnson, who often cites Sacramento’s work with the homeless as a point of success? It’s not. Why isn’t Sacramento’s county counsel legally challenging the agreement that prevents the county from keeping the parkway safe? What has to happen before Sacramento grows a spine and confronts a real danger to public safety?

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