We have an epidemic threatening wildlife and public safety that’s being met with shrugged shoulders and resignation, as if it were a problem too big for Sacramento to fix.
Fires continue to scorch the American River Parkway. The topic has been visited before in this space. It’s a source of great consternation among policymakers countywide. Yet the parkway keeps burning because there is a moral quandary behind the fires destroying Sacramento’s 23-mile urban forest.
What is to be done with the homeless people camping illegally in the park, primarily along the lower stretch of the American River and on city land? Until that question is answered with permanent supportive housing – until Sacramento decides that it is unacceptable for people to be living in the woods – the parkway will keep catching fire.
If Sacramento thinks that nothing can be done to combat the toxic mix of illegal campers, arson and miles of dry vegetation caused by a four-year drought, then shame on all of us.
Under Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento is in nonstop celebration mode these days. Look, world! We’re cool! And let us tell you how cool we are at this choreographed news conference! It’s leadership by photo op. It’s hollow slogans like “Sacramento 3.0” when there are serious social issues that demand more than slogans.
Virtually everyone knows why Sacramento’s urban forest keeps catching fire. And the largest concentration of fires on the parkway have been within the city limits of Sacramento. But the parkway is the responsibility of Sacramento County because it stretches beyond the city and through several other areas.
The county has $6.5 million to spend annually on all parks countywide, meaning that only a small handful of park rangers are available to patrol the underbrush where people are living illegally and where most of the fires are starting.
As the result of a 2009 lawsuit, park rangers cannot remove unoccupied illegal campsites without first posting a 48-hour notice for inhabitants to remove their belongings. Campers can simply move their stuff to another spot and the process begins again.
So what happens? Fires. There had been more than 50 fires on the parkway since May. They haven’t stopped.
This past Thursday, a cyclist near Ethan Way and Cal Expo alerted rangers that he saw a man lighting T-shirts on fire. Rangers confirmed the fire but said the cyclist could not identify the person they had suspected of setting the fire. The suspect was later released.
On Saturday, rangers and city fire officials responded to a report in the Woodlake area of a camper purposely setting fires at an illegal campsite, according to Jeff Leatherman, director of the Department of Regional Parks.
The man got into a fight with other campers and decided to express his displeasure by setting their stuff on fire, Leatherman said. Other campers called authorities for help, which park rangers say is a rarity. Authorities said they know who they want to arrest on suspicion of starting the fires, but finding this person is another story.
“It’s another day at work for us,” said Stan Lumsden, a commander with the county park rangers. “We’re doing our best.”
Those charged with policing and protecting Sacramento’s urban forest have a unique mission: They have to clean up the disaster caused by Sacramento’s inaction.
County Supervisor Phil Serna has seen this firsthand. On a recent Saturday when he and other volunteers were cleaning the parkway, Serna came across “a big campsite that clearly had a burned-out camp stove,” he said. “We saw marijuana bongs. We found a bike chop shop with bike frames.”
Serna also saw what I’ve seen every time I’ve been out of the parkway: discarded needles from drug use. These are the remnants of human desperation. It’s not hyperbole. It’s real. If you don’t believe it, take a look for yourself. But be careful.
What does all this say about Sacramento?
“We need to do something bigger and more substantial in terms of personnel,” Serna said. “We need to start talking about hiring 10 rangers at a time and not just one or two.”
The city of Sacramento needs to get into the conversation. “The current situation leaves the county holding the bag,” City Councilman Steve Hansen said. “That is not sustainable.”
Hansen said he would like to see private dollars deployed to preserve the parkway through a conservancy. A place that is home to gorgeous natural habitat is being destroyed acre by acre. Currently, there are 3,000 goats and sheep on the parkway eating vegetation that is fuel for fires. It’s a good strategy, but a Band-Aid for a human crisis.
What do you do with the people camping on the parkway? In Sunday’s Bee, former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg wrote that permanent supportive housing is a key component for fighting homelessness. On the parkway and beyond, we are talking about large numbers of people with mental illnesses.
“Despite numerous advances, issues of the mentally ill homeless, and mental illness in general, are getting worse, not better,” Steinberg wrote.
Steinberg is the author of the Mental Health Services Act, the 2004 ballot initiative passed by state voters that imposes a 1 percent tax on personal income in excess of $1 million. “The act ... has produced $400 million of supportive housing, early psychosis identification and treatment for teenagers at risk of serious mental illness and many other innovative approaches,” he wrote.
He is advocating that counties and the state use MHSA money to fund permanent supportive housing.
Until that happens – until anything happens – the fires will keep burning.
“My greatest fear on the fire front is that we’re starting to see temperatures drop as the parkway gets drier and drier,” Serna said. “When it gets colder, that’s when folks want to warm themselves. I’m very concerned that we haven’t seen the worst of the fires.”