Stopping Parkway Fires

There was a good article in the Sacramento Bee yesterday about the problems stopping Parkway fires and the primary point is that virtually all of the fires are in the illegal camping area of the Parkway and without resolving illegal camping—which the County, by agreeing to the legal settlement mentioned, has hamstrung itself in accomplishing that—the fires will continue.

An excerpt.

It’s been another bad fire season on the tinder-dry American River Parkway, and Sacramento’s recreational jewel, a 23-mile swath of natural habitat that runs through a densely populated urban area, is proving again that it has two facets.

One is a paradise for cyclists and nature lovers. The other invites illegal camping by the homeless and offers a landscape of dry brush that can easily be set ablaze and threaten surrounding neighborhoods with smoke and fire.

That has been especially true in recent years, when scarce rains have created drier fuel for wildfires, leading to more frequent and intense conflagrations, fire officials said.

“The fires are burning hotter and larger the last couple of years because of the drought,” said Chris Harvey, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department.

Already this year there have been eight significant wildfires on the lower reaches of the American River Parkway, roughly between Cal Expo and the Sacramento River, and a number of smaller spot fires. They include four fires that broke out Tuesday near Discovery Park and the parkway’s Woodlake area, near Northgate Boulevard and Highway 160. Last summer, a 160-acre fire blazed near Cal Expo on the Fourth of July.

Investigators are looking into possible causes of recent wildfires, including arson, but have yet to reach conclusions.

Though fires on the parkway are predictable each summer, some may be avoidable, officials said. Measures such as prescribed burns and removal of illegal campers can help limit fuel and ignition sources. Those measures, however, have proven controversial – leading to frustration and curtailing fire-prevention activities.

Harvey, the fire department spokesman, said prescribed burns make a difference. Opposition by residents of the older, leafy Woodlake neighborhood prompted the fire department in late spring to stop a prescribed burn in the nearby Woodlake area of the parkway. The same area where the burn was scheduled, then canceled, burned ferociously in a wildfire Tuesday, he said….

Others say the danger isn’t the fuel load but the people starting fires. Illegal campers, mainly homeless people, are often blamed for igniting blazes on purpose or accidentally, sometimes by making campfires.

Bill Farrell, president of the Woodlake Neighborhood Association, regularly bicycles to work on the parkway. He said some Woodlake residents oppose controlled burns because they damage the environment while doing little to keep wildfires from starting. County officials who oversee the parkway aren’t doing enough rid it of illegal campers, he said.

“The people with the matches are still there, and we’re left with scorched earth,” Farrell said.

Dozens of illegal encampments large and small dotted the woodlands and fields in the area of Tuesday’s fires. One prominent camp included four large makeshift tents, the biggest draped in an American flag. It also had trash bins, shopping carts, a wheelbarrow and an overpowering smell of human waste. Other small camps were tucked away deep in the trees.

The burnt remnants of two other camps – a shopping cart, fire pits, and charred pages of a Bible – sat amid scorched earth in the biggest of Tuesday’s fires, which burned several acres of grassland, trees and shrubs.

Phil Serna, chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, took issue with the idea that the county was not doing enough to reduce illegal camping and other wildfire risks.

In the past four years, he said, the county enacted bans on smoking and barbecuing in the parkway, except in landscaped picnic grounds. It nearly doubled the number of rangers and stepped up patrols for illegal campers. Rangers and law enforcement officers coordinated their efforts to serve arrest warrants and illegal campers. And social workers regularly offer assistance, including motel vouchers, to those who have nowhere else to go.

The county has funded efforts to reduce wildfires through mowing grasses, controlled burns and trimming trees to prevent fires from moving vertically, he said.

“The county has made significant advances to address illegal camping head-on,” Serna said. “We’ve appropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two budget cycles for reducing fuel loads in the parkway and to keep people from camping in deep vegetation where they shouldn’t be camping.”

But under the terms of a 2009 legal settlement, rangers and officers can’t simply tear down illegal camps. After civil rights attorneys challenged the practice, rangers have to give campers an opportunity to remove their belongings or to store and inventory the items for later retrieval.

Retrieved August 16, 2015 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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