GOLETA, Calif. - The City of Goleta is taking an active role in reducing the threat to lives and property from homeless camp fires that quickly rage out of control. Two this month have been dangerously close to businesses and the traveling public on Highway 101.
The bulk of the fires have been in freeway corridors.
It's often a location with mixed lines and could include the City of Goleta, CalTrans, Union Pacific, Santa Barbara County, California Highway Patrol, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department and at times Santa Barbara City - Airport District involvement.
The state has also issued a request to keep homeless camps in place instead of clearing them due to the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Recent fires on the southbound side of Highway 101 in the area of Fairview and Los Carneros have sent flames into the air more than 50 feet high and showered the highway including passing cars with embers.
Evacuations have had to take place.
The city says it is balancing how to help the vulnerable population and how to protect the community from these dangerous fires coming out of homeless camps.
"These fires which have been starting small have been getting really large really fast," said Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Daniel Bertucelli. "As engine companies are pulling up on scene, we have had 40 to 60 foot flame lengths."
Bertucelli says they often call in multiple engines, hand crews and a helicopter right away to slow the flames down and keep the fires in check. "We do that with an aggressive attack," he said. "We utilized the Santa Barbara County air support unit helicopter to make air drops and we hit it really hard."
There are multiple agencies working with the fire department to help extinguish the fires.
"Our number one priority is always the life safety of people and that could be the folks living in these encampments, or the motorists driving by, or the residents living in houses nearby, or the employees in commercial structures nearby."
In one of the recent fires, it spread over the cars. "We started getting some vegetation burning on the north side of the freeway near a gas station and some other commercial buildings which caused some concern."
For commuters, it can be blinding, and "motorists are being put at risk with the smoke."
The City of Goleta has a task force dealing with this issue. In a statement, NewsChannel 3 was told, "We are constantly balancing how to help this vulnerable population with the need to protect community members from the hazards associated with homeless encampments."
The full statement from the City of Goleta can be found here: The City of Goleta responds to concerns over homeless encampment fires.
The city is working with CalTrans, the CHP, Union Pacific, Amtrak, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, the City of Santa Barbara Airport District and social service agencies that deal with homelessness.
This morning in one of the burned areas, tents and a barbecue had already been set up along with many possessions. "It is a little disconcerting to see that just two weeks later we have the same setup going in an area where we had a fire," said Bertucelli.
"These encampments are very elaborate. We have found structures that are very large. One of them had a basement," he said. "There's a lot of paraphernalia and biohazards."
He said the problem is beyond this area. "We have been having riverbed fires and other fires and homeless fires all around Santa Barbara County as well as Ventura County and up in San Luis Obispo County. In fact all up and down the State of California."
A City of Goleta report says:
The City is in the final stages of drafting a comprehensive Homelessness Strategic Plan to holistically address the issue of homelessness in our community. The plan will help guide and coordinate efforts to prevent and address homelessness in the City of Goleta. The plan will be presented to the Homelessness Issues Standing Committee next week on July 22.
To report a homeless encampment, please contact Shanna Dawson in the Neighborhood Services and Public Safety Department at email@example.com or via our City Assist system https://tinyurl.com/GoletaSubscriptions by going to Submit a Request and then clicking on Homeless Encampment/Illegal Camping.