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Homeless Encampment Fires Remain A Challenge For Sacramento-Area Firefighters

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — With dozens of fires every week, fire officials say homeless encampments are responsible for many of them. It's a complex issue that needs to be addressed as it's draining resources.

Just this past weekend, firefighters made an airdrop in Rio Linda to keep a raging vegetation fire away from homes and businesses.

Crews were busy on more than a dozen fires this weekend across the Sacramento region, including near Ancil Hoffman Park along the American River Parkway.

"These fires are being investigated by an arson investigation team, but what we can say is a majority of our vegetation fires are involving homeless encampments," Sacramento Metro Fire spokesperson Parker Wilbourn said.

It was the same scene in Placer County as Cal Fire crews worked to keep flames at bay in an area where homeless encampments butted up against residential areas just steps away from hundreds of homes and critical infrastructure in Roseville. In fact, the danger was exposed last year when a fire broke out under a bridge in that same area.

"There is a safety component there. There are fuels right in the back of some people's yards that are threatening those homes and there are people living in those fuels," Wilbourn said.

"I think the danger is even higher because of the fire danger in the wildland-urban interface," said Justin Brown who lives in Placer County.

Scenes like that frustrate Brown whose Colfax home was one of nearly 150 destroyed in the River Fire last year. Homeless living at a nearby campground were suspected in that fire.

"It was kind of just this 'We can't do anything about it, but we want to be compassionate, but it seems to be just getting a little out of hand,' and soon after, a fire lit at campsite number two," Brown said.

Fire officials say it becomes an even bigger issue with windy conditions and triple-digit temperatures.

"We are not law enforcement. It presents a safety challenge for our crews. We're having to basically do a search of tents and these spaces to try and evacuate the folks that are living in those spaces," Wilbourn said.

They are life-threatening and endanger the environment, and water access is an issue. Many of these encampments are not near fire hydrants.

"Many times, we do not have an adequate water supply, and again, there are no barriers in these grasses, so we will call for those resources. So we call for water tinders which carry up to 3,000 gallons. We also have air operations that can do water drops from the sky," Wilbourn said.

Fire officials know it's a complex issue that ignites frustration, but one that needs to be addressed for public safety.

"The fire department isn't necessarily prepared to create those solutions," Wilbourn said. "What we do want to do is recognize it is an issue that is not only threatening the folks experiencing homeless but it's also affecting the community."

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