Editorials

Public safety is paramount on American River Parkway

What’s left of a boombox sits in an otherwise burned and barren field along the American River Parkway. This site near Camp Pollock is one of several that have been scarred by wildfires this summer. Many blame people who are camping illegally.
What’s left of a boombox sits in an otherwise burned and barren field along the American River Parkway. This site near Camp Pollock is one of several that have been scarred by wildfires this summer. Many blame people who are camping illegally. esmith@sacbee.com

The blackened patches of what used to be trees and grass don’t take long to find along the American River Parkway. Not this year. Not after dozens of wildfires have sent smoke billowing into the air and nearby residents running for cover.

It’s also not hard to find liquor bottles, tattered clothing and melted electronics seared into the still smoldering ground, evidence of the illegal camping that’s been going on deep in the brush.

For years, this has been allowed to continue. But not anymore, officials say.

This week, Sacramento County supervisors finally approved an ordinance banning grills and other “incendiary devices” in regional county parks, except in designated picnic areas. Park rangers can confiscate these items on sight, circumventing previous rules that required them to wait 48 hours. People who violate the ordinance also will face a misdemeanor instead of just getting a ticket.

This is sure to put a dent in the number of homeless people camping on the parkway, lighting fires to cook and keep warm. Some might call it “criminalization of the homeless.” We call it common sense.

Consider that so far this year, there have been 53 fires in county parks, all but a few along one stretch of the parkway. That’s the same number for all of 2014.

The drought is a big reason for the jump. A small campfire can quickly become a massive wildfire that’s a risk to homeless campers and nearby residents alike.

While it’s true that county officials don’t know for sure that illegal camping is to blame for every fire – they think an arsonist is at work, too – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is setting most of them.

There are hundreds of homeless encampments deep in the woods of the parkway. Most are between Discovery Park and Campus Commons, the same area where most of the wildfires have erupted and just up the street from Loaves & Fishes.

Supervisors were right to act. The ordinance is a good, short-term solution to an immediate public safety problem. It is not, however, a long-term solution to the real problem of homelessness.

At best, supervisors are playing whack-a-mole. When homeless campers are pushed out of the parkway, where will they go? Parks in midtown?

Merely moving homeless people around is not a solution. We need a comprehensive plan to get people housing and services, so they can get off the street and stay off the street. For county officials to lose sight of that would be the real crime against the homeless.

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