Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: We deserve to know why the parkway is burning

A fire captain and dozer operator talk where a fire burned brush and trees on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento Fire Department crews battled the two-acre fire about a half-mile east of Discovery Park on the north side of the American River.
A fire captain and dozer operator talk where a fire burned brush and trees on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento Fire Department crews battled the two-acre fire about a half-mile east of Discovery Park on the north side of the American River.

Fires have been burning all summer on the American River Parkway, decimating large swaths of Sacramento’s 23-mile urban forest while putting nearby residents at risk.

Are the fires being caused by illegal campers on the parkway? Are they being caused by people who want the campers out of the parkway and are lighting fires to bring attention to the illegal camping? Or are they being caused by something else?

The primary agencies to answer these questions are the Sacramento Metro Fire Department and the Sacramento City Fire Department. They’re the experts. They are trained to investigate fires. They are neutral parties that could bring clarity to a public health issue that’s rife with politics.

What politics?

When you’re talking about illegal campers on the American River Parkway, you are talking about homeless people. That reality has caused community-wide paralysis as much of the parkway has gone up in smoke.

Suggesting that people need to be moved off the parkway is viewed by some as hating the homeless. Meanwhile, residents of Woodlake and other north Sacramento neighborhoods are furious about the slow destruction of a prized natural resource.

At least 30 fires have burned brush and trees along the north side of the American River Parkway. Multimedia by Randy Pench, The Sacramento Bee

On Friday, I went looking for clarity from Sac Metro Fire and Sac City. I wanted to know what the experts thought, what they suspected and what they have seen.

According to Chris Harvey, spokesman for Sacramento City Fire, they’ve seen encampments, which are often located in wooded areas next to heavily used bike trails. “It’s pretty bad,” Harvey said. “You see human feces, needles, every manner of garbage.”

Common sense tells you that homeless encampments could be a source of fire in a bone-dry parkway. Cooking stoves could provide the spark. So could cigarettes. Used needles suggest that people high on drugs could cause a conflagration – by accident or on purpose.

So what’s the answer from the experts?

They don’t have one.

Officials from both agencies were not prepared to say anything definitive on why so many fires have burned on American River Parkway. They say it’s hard to determine arson in parkway fires because of a lack of reliable witnesses within transient homeless communities.

So we have a fire epidemic with no official answers. We have a public health hazard and no clarity on what’s causing it.

This is hard to believe and completely unacceptable. We’re beyond the point where the Sacramento City Council and the Sacramento County supervisors need to demand answers for why the parkway has been burning.

What is it going to take? Are houses and apartments going to have to burn with people in them before somebody demands answers? Is a firefighter going to have to get killed on the parkway?

Already this summer, firefighters have had to battle blazes by shooting water cannons from boats on the American River. In these instances, they chose to fight from the water, fearing falling branches or trees weakened by previous fires.

It’s been hard to keep track of the number of fires in the parkway. Often it’s difficult to determine where one fire ends and another one begins. You also have firefighters from two different agencies responding and keeping their own statistics.

For now, the most comprehensive accounting comes from county park rangers, who say there have been approximately 53 fires since May 1.

Jeff Leatherman, the county parks chief, said on Friday that he has heard nothing definitive from fire officials on the causes of the fires.

Earlier this week, county Supervisor Phil Serna was instrumental in getting the county to spend an additional $500,000 to deal with illegal camping in the parkway. But even Serna is lacking definitive answers from officials on parkway fires.

“I’m very interested to know the final conclusions our local fire agencies have reached about the source of our summer fires,” Serna said. “We need to know and the public deserves to know.”

In 2013, county rangers began tracking homeless encampments in the parkway. So far in 2015, county park rangers have found 606 occupied camps – most of them in the stretch of the American River between Discovery Park and Campus Commons. They have come across 458 unoccupied camps.

Detailed maps provided by the Department of Regional Parks show the fires have been concentrated in roughly the same areas as the homeless camps.

Since Sept. 1, county park rangers have dispatched teams to issue citations to campers, ordering them to leave the parkway. When rangers come across an unoccupied camp, all they can do is post a notice calling for the camp to be torn down within 48 hours. This is to comply with a lawsuit filed against the county by homeless advocates.

Rangers say that when campers return, they merely pick up and move to another part of the park. If rangers find their stuff again somewhere else, the 48-hour notice to remove their belongings begins again.

Serna said it’s time to revisit that settlement.

“When the Board of Supervisors approved that settlement (in 2009), no one foresaw the real fire threat that illegal camping poses in a tinder-dry American River Parkway,” he said. “We must look at the current circumstance as one of preserving public safety, which in my opinion supersedes all else.”

It does. The next step is to compel fire officials to inform the public about what they think is causing the parkway fires.

Allowing homeless campers in the parkway has provided a smokescreen to obscure Sacramento’s homeless issue. Those against the removal of homeless campers from the parkway can be self-righteous, even as they defend a situation where people are living in questionable conditions in the woods.

It’s time for those with the expertise to provide answers so a community can confront the fires that have burned all summer long.