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Santa Rosa focuses on fire threat from homeless camps

The afternoon fire in a grassy field along Stony Point Road in the July heat had the potential to cause massive destruction. Flames destroyed a vacant building on the property, but more alarmingly, winds pushed flames toward a row of homes on Muledeer Lane.

It started in a homeless encampment. The fire burned 3.4 acres and a few backyard fences before firefighters doused it.

Three months earlier, an early morning blaze April 20, also started by a homeless person, destroyed a boarded-up 16,000-square-foot building next to St. Eugene’s Catholic Church. Damage was estimated at $400,000.

Fears of another fire prompted Santa Rosa officials to clear homeless campers out of the western half of Fremont Park last month. More than 100 people were camping in the 1.7-acre park off Fourth Street, some using open flames for cooking or warming. The conditions, fire officials worried, could spark a blaze and spread throughout the camp, ignite redwood trees in the western section of the park and leap to adjacent businesses and homes.

“All of those conditions were at the point we could not allow it to continue to put not only the neighborhood at risk if fire were to occur there, but also any fire that would start and spread to others in the park,” Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal has identified at least 85 fires in city limits this year started by homeless residents. They include cooking or warming fires in a field that didn’t spread — and vegetation and structure fires that put lives and livelihoods at risk.

The fires have caused in excess of $1 million in damage, according to Press Democrat records, including the destruction of at least two large buildings, one a business, and a handful of unoccupied buildings. No injuries were reported.

The city doesn’t keep a database of fires started by the homeless, but Lowenthal said the seven dozen he found by searching through reports felt like more than in years past.

While homeless residents have always set fires to cook or keep warm, and those have occasionally spread, the issue came into sharper focus late last year when more than 100 tents housing 200 people sprang up on the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

The tent city became unsanitary and multiple fires — Lowenthal found at least 10 — were reported at campsites, on pallets or on fences of residents whose yards back up to the trail.

Through winter, other fires set to warm homeless campers by spread to vegetation or belongings in encampments. Sometimes they were set in trash enclosures but spread to an adjacent structure.

Many were small, but firefighters were lucky in some instances, Lowenthal said, including the Stony Point Road case in which the field had recently been mowed to cut down on fire fuel.

In late April, firefighters returning to their station saw smoke coming from a liquor store around 12:30 a.m. in the Oliver’s grocery store complex on Stony Point. Crews were able to keep the fire to the exterior of the building, but it still caused $50,000 in damage.

It was connected to discarded drug paraphernalia and a nearby homeless encampment.

Another on March 2 destroyed an abandoned building known to be used by homeless people. Three days later, a fire at a homeless camp spread to a nearby auto body shop, causing $450,000 in damage.

Within the past few months, the Fire Department has also responded to fires next to Kohl’s and the former Orchard Supply Hardware store believed started by nearby small homeless camps, and two larger fires on Round Barn Boulevard and Mendocino Avenue in areas damaged by the Tubbs fire.

The city, in conjunction with fire officials, focuses its cleanup of homeless encampments on public property. With recent litigation, the city is required to fulfill certain criteria before clearing out encampments.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the city also considers guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which recommends not dispersing homeless camps to avoid a potential spread of the virus.

“We’re constantly evaluating the health and safety conditions of the encampment itself,” said David Gouin, Santa Rosa’s director of housing and community services. “But the threat of fire safety supersedes everything in the injunction.”

Fire, police, city outreach and homeless services crews evicted residents in the western half of Fremont Park on July 29 after the fire danger became too great.

It marked at least the fourth large-scale eviction of homeless people in and around the city in the past six months, since more than 200 people were forced to leave the Joe Rodota Trail in late January. Other sweeps were staged at Howarth Park near Summerfield Road, the Fountaingrove area and along Farmers Lane, where the potential for a wildfire was key, Lowenthal said.

“When an encampment presents a significant fire threat and public safety threat, we do an assessment to determine whether it should be immediately removed to mitigate or eliminate that threat,” he said.

That assessment includes the size and location of the encampment, if cooking and warming are occurring, or whether smoking or other potentially illegal activity poses a risk of ignition, he said.

One near Bicentennial Way and Fountaingrove Parkway was similar to the Howarth Park camp in that it sat among brush and seasonal grasses.

“It was also right in the middle of an evacuation route,” Lowenthal said. “That has potential for fire to spread from an encampment and the smoke could hamper evacuations.”

Such considerations reflect the anxiety about wildfires, especially in a community heightened to fire danger since the 2017 firestorm destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa.

“We receive a lot of comments from the public regarding their expectations that we’re taking action on encampments, especially if they pose a fire threat,” Lowenthal said. “A lot of that feedback is coming from those who live in Tubbs fire scar.”

The city can disband encampments on public property, but those on private lands pose different challenges. Owners, when contacted by the city after a fire on their property, typically cooperate, Lowenthal said.

Often, though, owners are from out of town and don’t even realize someone has set up camp on their property.

At Fremont Park, dozens of campers remain in the eastern half and the city is continuing to monitor conditions of the camp.

Homeless advocates acknowledge the city is within legal rights to clean out camps if they provide alternative housing options, but some have decried the morality of it.

“It’s not just fire danger, but all the things about living unsheltered,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. “We want to make sure people’s needs are being met.”

Holmes works cooperatively with the city and Sonoma County when encampments are to be cleared. She said her workers aren’t trained in fire prevention, but will educate the homeless residents they encounter about potential dangers.

“We know there has been a lot of fires reported in encampments in Sonoma County,” she said. “That is worrisome, especially given what we’ve been through. That’s why we’re working so closely to provide as many options as possible for people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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