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Homeless encampments pose risk of fire danger

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Published In The Alpenhorn News 12/24/2017

Homeless encampments pose risk of fire danger

Makeshift homeless tent discovered by hikers in a forested area near Crestline.

(Contributed photo)

Sunday, Dec 24, 2017

Part One

By Douglas W. Motley

A crudely fashioned tent structure discovered recently by hikers in a wooded area near Valley of Enchantment, and others like it, may pose a risk of fire danger to the mountain communities, say fire and forestry officials.

A Crestline couple, while hiking in a forested area between Valley of Enchantment and Top Town Crestline in late November, discovered a tent-like blue tarp structure covered with branches and pine needles just off of a hiking trail on land leased by the U.S. Forest Service to the Valley of Enchantment Mutual Water Company.

“While hiking, we saw a blue tarp, held up by a frame made from tree branches, with pine needles, leaves and sticks acting as camouflage. There was a ton of trash and food wrappers inside and on the ground, and a wood burning stove inside with a metal chimney sticking out of the top. There was a mattress inside, and it looked like at least one person had been living there,” said one of the hikers, wishing not to be identified.

Noting that one of his employees had put out a cooking-related fire in the same general area about two years ago, VOE Mutual Water Company General Manager Brian Smith told The Alpenhorn News, “We’re up there every day and we run them out, but they keep coming back.”

According to County Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez, there have been numerous fires in recent years that started at homeless encampments, the majority of which occurred in washes and riverbeds in the Victorville and San Bernardino areas. “They’re not done maliciously, but the embers blow and they pose a danger to communities.” One such blaze that broke out north of Sierra Way on August 30, 2015 charred 15 acres of dry brush in Waterman Canyon before its spread northward into the national forest was halted by a continuous procession of firefighting aircraft. According to a Forest Service spokeswoman, the blaze emanated from a homeless encampment in a nearby ravine.

Another blaze that erupted in dry brush in a wash north of San Bernardino’s Wildwood Park on June 2, 2016 was attributed to one of several homeless encampments in the vicinity. Two days later, two more suspicious blazes were reported in the same area.

More recently, several of some 13 wildland fires that started in the foothills above the Wal-Mart store in Highland last spring reportedly emanated from homeless camps. The others were attributed to a serial arsonist, who was eventually captured and charged.

As far as camping in non-designated areas of the national forest, “You can’t just do that,” said U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Zach Behrens. “When we get a report, we will make contact, talk to people and provide education about forestland. If we ask them to leave and they are still there, we will cite and evict them,” he said adding that the citation requires a mandatory appearance in federal court. If there is an out-of-control fire at such an illegal campsite, an arrest can be made for reckless behavior, Behrens said reminding, “If you see a fire, call 9-1-1 immediately.”

According to San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Gilbert Flores, deputies from the Twin Peaks station recently went with code enforcement officers to tow and remove several vehicles that people were living in on a forested area near Highland Drive in Crestline. Flores recommends that local residents report such incidents to the County Code Enforcement office in Twin Peaks.

In next week’s Part Two, the Mountain Homeless Coalition offers solutions to the growing homeless problem on the mountain.


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