Homeless camps a problem when it comes to fire, Nevada County officials say | TheUnion.com

Homeless camps a problem when it comes to fire, Nevada County officials say

The fire near South Auburn and Whiting streets scorched land and destroyed about 150 porta potties. David Holm, 52, faces an arson charge in connection with the blaze.
Submitted to The Union |

The heat from the South Auburn Street fire left a wave of damage on the porta potties at Quick Response.

Hundreds of portable bathrooms sit on the 731 S. Auburn St. property, adjacent to the site of the Sept. 17 fire that blazed through some 30 to 40 acres.

Many appear untouched by the flames. But step closer to the burned ground and the porta potties start to change. Some have melted slightly. Others, at the edge of the fire line, are little more than frames. Plastic lies beneath the burned husks.

Brian South, owner of Quick Response, figures he lost about 150 units. That leaves him about 350 in working condition. Each one is worth $1,000.

“There’s going to have to be some changes,” South said. “I may be forced to lay some people off.”

Authorities have charged David Holm, 52, with arson in connection with the fire. A man who spoke with Holm at the scene called him disoriented. Police said he was a transient who was camping in the area. The fire possibly was caused by a cigarette.

According to South, Holm lived on the adjacent property and would use his porta potties. South never invited homeless campers to use his facilities, but he didn’t grow upset when they did, as long as no damage occurred.

That changed last Saturday when a fire spread near South Auburn and Whiting streets, right by South’s business. It became the latest blaze that authorities say is connected to a homeless person or transient camp.

And if something doesn’t change, officials say it won’t be the last.


“In Nevada County, it’s significant,” said John Hotchkiss, a fire captain specialist with Cal Fire, about the connection between homeless camps and fires.

Camp or warming fires are synonymous with homeless camps. They’re also illegal. A homeowner or renter can legally have a fire pit, because it’s either their property or they have permission from the owner.

That’s not the case with a homeless camp. It’s not their property, meaning they can’t legally burn. That means the fire starter could be charged with arson, the offense police say Holm faces.

People in camps typically have no method of controlling a fire that grows out of control. They also likely have no cell phones, hand tools or safety buffer cut in the earth, Hotchkiss said.

“Dry conditions certainly increase the chances of a fire escalating beyond your control,” he added.

“All it takes is one spark.”

The state’s drought, coupled with bark beetles killing pine trees, exacerbates the problem. Jim Turner, fire chief of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, said trees killed by bark beetles burn like kindling. They cast brands into the air that can float, land and start another fire.

Turner has seen embers start new fires from a half-mile to a mile away from the original blaze.

“This one, we got quite lucky,” he said of the South Auburn Street fire.

Mark Brown, forest vegetation program manager with the Tahoe National Forest, said the drought has weakened trees. Those trees are then more susceptible to a bark beetle infestation.

“They’re always out there,” Brown said of the bark beetles. “They’re just waiting for an opportunity.”

According to Turner, fires stemming from homeless camps have grown worse over the past few years. In areas with traditional homes, firefighters know where people live and if everyone has been evacuated. Homeless camps prove more difficult. Firefighters don’t know how many people might live in an encampment.

So how does the community solve this problem?

“I don’t know,” Turner said. “We may be too far behind it.”

Possible solutions

The issue of homeless camps and fires has long been a concern of Nevada County’s Fire Safe Council, said Joanne Drummond, the council’s executive director.

Drummond, however, said the problem isn’t homelessness. It’s illegal camping. People pick an area that’s overgrown, like a thicket or forest, for their camps.

Eliminate the overgrown vegetation and the campers will leave, Drummond said.

Removing that vegetation solves two purposes: It discourages the camps and destroys potential fire fuels. Fire will occur, Drummond said, but its impact will be reduced if less vegetation exists.

Drummond’s group has some grant money for reducing hazardous vegetation. She focuses on low-income seniors and those with disabilities.

Those grants, however, are for defensible spaces only — those spots near roads. Someone with a vegetation problem in the middle of a 20-acre parcel can’t access those funds, Drummond said.

“In some ways, we’ve loved our trees to death,” she added.

Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard knows firsthand about the effects of homeless camps. Last Saturday’s fire happened within his jurisdiction.

Grass Valley Police occasionally disband transient camps, typically after they’re contacted by a property owner.

Gammelgard said arresting transients isn’t a solution. Many of them have drug, alcohol and mental health issues. He wants them to get treatment, because he’s discovered that the ones who don’t will relocate to another area.

“I think there are so many moving parts to solving that puzzle,” the chief said.

Drummond said her group, along with homelessness nonprofit Sierra Roots, has visited homeless camps and spoken with residents. Drummond tells them they should use flashlights instead of fires during warmer weather. The response has been positive.

The problem, however, persists. Homeless people continue to live on the outskirts of Nevada County’s towns. Warming fires will occur as the weather cools.

Gammelgard said the various government agencies must work together to solve the problem.

South, the owner of Quick Response, wonders what happens when some people don’t want help.

“And that’s where we’ve got the problem,” he added.

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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