SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The Loma Fire that broke out the night of May 20 in Santa Barbara added fuel to a highly volatile debate over the city's homeless crisis and mounting fire concerns.
Victor Hernandez, the 23-year-old man arrested and suspected of purposely setting the fire, was homeless at the time and living in the area, according to Interim Fire Marshal, Jim Austin. It is unclear whether Hernandez was living above or below Loma Alta Drive.
Austin told NewsChannel 3-12 on Tuesday that Hernandez has at least one relative in town, a brother, but the two are estranged because of Hernandez's apparent drug use.
After the fire, Hernandez was booked in the Santa Barbara County Jail and now faces charges for arson of an inhabited dwelling (vegetation fire caused damage to a structure), five counts of general arson, being under the influence of a controlled substance and being in possession of narcotics.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is scheduled back in court June 18 for a preliminary hearing.
The City's Public Works and Building Departments are in charge of overseeing the stabilization of the privately-owned hillside, which is expected to be a years-long process.
Austin said four owners of the five parcels scorched will need to hire a geotechnical engineer to determine the extent of damage to the soil and root structure of the shrubs and plants that previously covered the area. That can be done either separately or together. Austin said it has been suggested that the City of Santa Barbara help pay for costs incurred by the private owners, however, that has not yet been decided.
Public Works crews will install cement K-Rails along Loma Alta Drive to protect the downslope. Also, plans are in the works to close Loma Alta Drive when rain is in the forecast.