Santa Barbara City police officials have confirmed they arrested an individual on arson charges in connection with Thursday night’s Loma Fire on TV Hill that consumed about 7 acres of steep sloping terrain at a time when winds were blowing upslope and sideways at speeds of 45 miles an hour. Police arrested a 23-year-old Santa Barbara resident, Victor Hernandez, who police say had been associated with other arson fires.
According to unconfirmed reports, police contend Hernandez flicked lit matches into the brush running alongside the steep and winding Loma Alta Drive. He was arrested at approximately midnight, and the timeline he gave officers put him at the Loma Alta scene when the fire was first reported. The police said five separate fires broke out that night. He was under the influence of controlled substances at the time of his arrest. More details are expected to be forthcoming shortly.
When the fire broke out, the initial speculation was that the fire had spread from one of the homeless encampments that can be found above — and in some cases below — Loma Alta. In recent months, city crews have been clearing out such camps in anticipation of fire season. Had the wind directions been different, the Loma Fire could have been dramatically worse; lying directly downslope from Loma Alta is the city’s lower Westside, home to some of the highest housing densities within city limits.
Although last night’s fire was reportedly the work of an arsonist, it has sparked intense closed-door discussion and debate inside City Hall as to what should be done about the proliferation of homeless encampments that can be found in most of the heavily wooded, out-of-the-way, and very flammable places.
Throughout COVID, the Centers for Disease Control has issued stern public health recommendations that such encampments be left alone so that occupants can be found if need be by public health officials dealing with the pandemic. Given the significant number of encampment fires and the onset of fire season, however, some voices with City Hall are pushing to create downslope “urban camping” sites where homeless people can eat, sleep, and congregate.
As always, there’s renewed interest in opening the sprawling Earl Warren fairgrounds to such use. Numerous parking lots — not to mention De la Guerra Plaza — have been mentioned, as well. In an interview conducted several weeks ago, County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard opined that large flat surfaces should be identified — preferably within walking distance of a 7-Eleven — where urban bush dwellers could congregate safely. This, of course, will exacerbate tensions with economically struggling merchants already upset about the larger number of homeless people on State Street and on Milpas Street.