Sacramento County restricts barbecues, stoves in parks

A man stops along the bike trail to take a picture while a fire burns in the American River Parkway south of Commerce Circle on Aug. 28, 2015 in Sacramento.
A man stops along the bike trail to take a picture while a fire burns in the American River Parkway south of Commerce Circle on Aug. 28, 2015 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

In response to dozens of wildfires this year on the American River Parkway, Sacramento County supervisors approved an ordinance Tuesday immediately restricting barbecues and other fire devices in regional parks.

The new rules ban the use of barbecues and “incendiary devices” in county parks except for in picnic areas. While county officials say they are uncertain about the reasons for the increase in parkway fires, they suggest the prolonged drought and the increase of illegal camping are to blame.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 4, 53 wildfires have occurred at county parks, all but a handful taking place on the parkway that runs from the Sacramento River to Folsom, according to Parks Director Jeff Leatherman. That is the same number of wildfires reported in the parks all of last year.

The ordinance allows park rangers to seize barbecue equipment or incendiary devices found in a park area not designated for picnics. It also increases the penalties for using incendiary devices without a permit from an infraction to a misdemeanor.

Leatherman said the parks department will post signs notifying the public of the new restrictions and park rangers will try to get people to comply without issuing citations.

He said he does not know what role barbecues and campfires have played in the wildfire increase, but given the drought, the new restrictions are clearly necessary. He said illegal campers have been found with barbecues for cooking, and they likely also use them to keep warm.

Supervisors unanimously supported the ordinance, but also expressed frustration that they did not have more information about the causes of parkway wildfires.

Supervisor Susan Peters said she believes some of the fires are the result of an arsonist and “we need to find out who it is.”

Supervisor Phil Serna said the board needs to know whether the fires are accidental or intentional because that would better determine how elected officials should respond. Peters and Serna pressed County Executive Brad Hudson to reach out to fire department officials, and Hudson said he would do so.

Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey said he has been discussing the parkway fires with Leatherman.

“We just don’t know the cause of most of the fires,” he said.

In a few cases, parkway fires have been found to be the result of arson, but more often than not, a cause has not been determined, he said.

The department has sent investigators to the parkway when they’ve occurred in illegal encampments where fires have occurred before. But trying to get cooperation from homeless witnesses is not easy, Harvey said.

Joan Burke, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, which provides services to the homeless, said she supports the new ordinance because she’s worried about the potential for someone to be killed or injured in a parkway fire.

The majority of the parkway fires this year have occurred in the parkway section within the city of Sacramento, according to a map Leatherman provided to the board.

Capt. Michelle Eidam of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which has responsibility for most of the rest of the parkway, said the department has only responded to five fires on the parkway, adding that park rangers don’t contact the department for every fire. She said she is compiling a more detailed report to provide to the county, including information about suspected causes.