Dan Moreno and Santos Mendez speaking with Lookout contributor Hanna Merzbach. David Sally sits near by
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )
Civic Life

Fire risk & homeless camps, the collision of emergencies: Santa Cruz Fire orders closures to minimize risk

One month from the one-year anniversary of the historically devastating CZU Lightning blazes, the unhoused of Santa Cruz will now have even fewer camping options thanks to the continued threat of wildfires.

The Santa Cruz Fire Department issued an emergency order closing all off-trail, city-owned open spaces in an attempt to minimize fire risk. The spaces include the Pogonip, Sycamore Grove, Arana Gulch, Moore Creek, Arroyo Seco and the DeLaveaga Wilderness. City officials have begun issuing notices at homeless encampments, and sites will be cleared as early as this week.

The closures are necessary to prevent fires amid extreme heat and drought, according to chief Jason Hajduk.

“Every big fire started small, and so we have to get it right every single time,” Hajduk said, explaining the order minimizes risk to the community and the environment, as well as people camping in these areas.

A photo taken on July 13, 2021 shows the extremely dry conditions near Pogonip in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The order will be in place until Santa Cruz gets enough rain to bring down the fire risk. As of June 10 — in the span of just over six months — the fire department had responded to 25 fire events in the city’s wildland-urban interface. Twenty-four of these fires were caused in the Pogonip and Sycamore Grove areas, where people are camped, according to Hajduk.

The number of people living in these areas is fluid and difficult to estimate. Following what Hajduk described as months of outreach, city officials gave 27 notices to Pogonip campers on July 12, ordering them to vacate.

And in Sycamore Grove, where about 20 people live tucked between the trees next to Highway 9, campsites received notices on July 13. They have a week to vacate, and failure to comply could result in a misdemeanor.

Dan Moreno, a long-time Santa Cruz resident who has camped at Sycamore Grove for three to four years, is at a loss for where to go next.

“I just don’t see any place that will help me return to living in a house,” Moreno said, citing few shelter and legal campground options. “We just do the best we can do.”

Encampments are currently permitted at the Golflands, behind the National Guard Armory, as well as at Camp Paradise on Felker Street and Dakota Landing in the South Benchlands.

A sign warns that all off-trail activity is prohibited due to the high fire risk in Santa Cruz County.
A sign warns that all off-trail activity is prohibited due to the high fire risk in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

But even Brent Adams, a local service provider who helps maintain the latter two camps, said there are not enough places for houseless people to go. He predicts tents will continue to pop up in new places across town if the city doesn’t come up with permanent solutions.

“We, as a community, have seen camp removals, over and over and over for a dozen years,” said Adams, the program director of the Warming Center, which offers homeless services year-round. “What we need is a camp displacement policy.”

Adams said that, when closing camps, officials should provide information on where people can go and provide transportation to get there, along with setting behavior expectations in those places. The notices issued by the fire department this week instead provided a phone number to set up a shelter referral appointment and times to meet with outreach staff, as well as information on how to get help from the Salvation Army.

Hajduk, the fire chief, said the aim of the new policy is not to demonize people who are homeless. “We need more services to address their needs,” he said. “But, I’m trying to address a specific issue of wildland fire.”

This emergency order comes on the heels of a recently-passed Santa Cruz City Council ordinance, which will ban people from sleeping in public spaces, unless homelessness programs are in place. Enforcement of this policy will begin when the city establishes safe sleeping sites with at least 150 spaces and creates a storage system for homeless people’s belongings.

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