By Douglas W. Motley
Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, San Bernardino County Fire and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department disclosed their intention to launch a program that would relocate homeless individuals away from the San Bernardino National Forest at a combined Crestline and Lake Arrowhead Municipal Advisory Council meeting, held Jan. 23 at Crestline’s San Moritz Lodge.
This unique program, reportedly the first of its kind in the U.S., would operate under the auspices of the Forest Service’s National Incident Management Organization (NIMO). USFS Public Affairs Officer Zach Behrens told The Alpine Mountaineer on Feb. 5 the program is designed to create a strategic plan and an operational guide for addressing non-recreational camping in the San Bernardino National Forest.
“The strategic plan,” Behrens said, “is to help us define our role and build partnerships within a complex and overlapping system of social services, local governments and the courts. The operational guide will give field staff and law enforcement consistent guidelines on managing the issue on the ground across the forest, which covers two counties and 690,000 acres of land. We need to prevent fires, protect watersheds and help those in need.”
Noting that the Forest Service recently hosted a NIMO team, Behrens said the team’s visit included meeting with employees from across the forest and a multitude of external partners, including the Mountain Homeless Coalition, San Bernardino County’s Office of Homeless Services, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) team, Cal Fire, County Fire and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to Deputy Chad Cusimano of the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Station, the goal of forestry’s NIMO and the sheriff’s HOPE programs is to offer transitional housing for the homeless, as well as substance abuse services.
“When our HOPE team responds to a report of a homeless encampment in the forest, we provide outreach in a proactive effort to offer resources,” he said.
Asked how many homeless encampments he was aware of within the San Bernardino National Forest, Behrens responded, “Due to the transient nature of homelessness, this number ebbs and flows and we often find encampments very close to either side of the boundary lines between national forest and other jurisdictions. I have no estimate at this time.”
When asked how many fires have been attributed to homeless encampments in the local forest, Behrens stated, “None, in recent years, at least. Now that does not mean there are not any but, unless a suspect is caught, it cannot be verified that a fire start was caused by a non-recreational camper.”
However, in a December 2017 interview with County Fire Public Affairs Officer Tracy Martinez, she said there had 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.
In April 2017, several of some 13 wildland fires that started in the foothills above the Wal-Mart store in Highland reportedly emanated from homeless camps. The others were attributed to a serial arsonist, who was eventually captured and charged.
More recently, a fire of suspicious nature, dubbed the Hillside Fire, broke out in a ravine in lower Waterman Canyon west of Highway 18 on October 31, 2019, in an area known to be home to several homeless encampments. It damaged or destroyed six homes and two outbuildings in north San Bernardino. The blaze, propelled by wind gusts up to 60 mph, charred 200 acres of national forest land in lower Waterman Canyon.
One week prior to the Hillside Fire, another suspicious blaze, dubbed the Old Water Fire for its start in lower Waterman Canyon, burned 145 acres of forested land north of San Bernardino, where numerous homeless encampments are known to exist.
Closer to home, an illegal campfire in a remote area southeast of Valley of Enchantment on July 31, 2019, briefly posed a major threat to the Crestline area. Several hundred feet from the main blaze, sheriff’s arson investigators were seen scouring the area surrounding a small white tent, searching for evidence and clues that might reveal the fire’s cause.
Asked what danger non-recreational (homeless) campers pose to the forest and nearby communities, Behrens said the danger often is the same as with any person on national forest land. “We see the same violations for illegal fires, littering, clearing vegetation and poaching with non-recreational campers as we do with recreational and other forest users. However, we do encounter a higher rate of drug activity and warrants with non-recreational campers and address those immediately.”
When asked how violators would be removed from the forest and whether they would face a fine or arrest, Behrens said, “We cannot comment on specific tactics, but each situation is unique and would be handled by law enforcement. As for fines related to citations and arrests, it would be up to a settlement with an assistant U.S. attorney or a ruling by a federal magistrate.”