Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES:  Late Thursday night, towering walls of flame raced their way up the backside of TV Hill — up from the Loma Alta — to the top at Miramonte Drive. Just like the economic rebound we keep hearing so much about, the flames “roared” up the hillside, ignited — we are told — by a 23-year-old meth-head pyromaniac now being held on $2 million bail.

In official communiques, the alleged arsonist has been described as a “resident transient,” a perplexingly contradictory phrase that somehow seems perfect to perfectly encapsulate our confusion in coming to terms with our homeless and houseless residents.

Fifty-five mile an hour winds chased the flames up the Loma Alta hillside — forbiddingly steep — bursting with a full fuel load of bone-cracking-dry brush. Rushing to the scene were 22 fire engines and 162 firefighters from five different agencies. In addition, there were 34 city cops and 25 county sheriff’s deputies on hand to handle traffic control and door-to-door evacuations. 

No alerts or smartphone communiques, however, were sent to residents of the lower Westside, so residents of one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on the South Coast looked on from their homes down below in a state of terror and confusion. Typically, firefighters have 24-48 hours to plan evacuations, City Fire Chief Chris Mailes told the council this Tuesday; last Thursday night, he said, it was closer to 24 seconds.

The good news? We all dodged a bullet. The bad news? They’re still a lot more bullets in that gun. 

Although no one has gotten around to officially declaring a drought for Santa Barbara, we are now in the midst of the lowest 10-year period when it comes to rainfall in recorded history. The ground is so dry, we are told, we need to worry about fires spreading — once they start — underground via hot root systems almost as much as we do floating embers. 

But there is one more piece of good news. The City Council — led by councilmembers Michael Jordan and Eric Friedman — are responding with uncommon speed, clarity, courage, desperation, and determination to the threat posed by what are invariably — and more ominously — described as “homeless encampments.” (Why, I wonder, are they never called simply “camp sites”?) 

Either way, under COVID, the number of these campgrounds have increased substantially, as have the number of fires they’ve generated. City Fire Marshal Joe Poiré reported firefighters responded to 18 homeless-related fires during the first 23 days in May. As we are swallowed into the maw of this year’s fire season, those number will only go up. 

Moments before the Loma Alta hillsides conflagrated, firefighters had been dispatched to another brush fire along the railroad tracks by Figueroa Street. Only a few hours after the Loma Alta incident, they’d be dispatched again to yet another fire. Most of these fires, Poiré explained, are accidental, some from cooking and heating, others from hot meth pipes. But some are the work of whacked-out arsonists and others by homeless people hoping to settle a score with other homeless people or with society at large.

If Santa Barbara finds itself caught in the crossfire of ever-increasing homeless populations coupled with ever increasing fire risk — the collapse of Western civilization coupled with the acceleration of climate change — we are hardly unique. It is clearly a statewide phenomenon and probably national in scope as well. 

Lots of cities — Santa Rosa being one of the more successful examples — have responded by creating tent cities where people living in the urban wilderness can come in from the cold. Almost immediately after last week’s fire, councilmembers Jordan and Friedman were on the horn with City Administrator Paul Casey demanding Santa Barbara follow suit. The plan is to create temporary safe urban spaces equipped with porta-potties, showers, the usual rainbow of necessary services, and, of course, a level of security to assuage the concerns of nearby neighbors. 

Once this is done, they argue, City Hall can then dispatch teams out along the railroad corridor, the freeway offramps, and places where people can be alone and “abate” the camps without running afoul of federal court rulings decreeing as “cruel and unusual punishment” any government actions that impede a person’s right to sleep outdoors absent the presence of alternative sleeping sites. 

Of the 1,000 homeless people living within city limits, about 280 are living on the streets or in such camps. Of those, about 60 are believed to be living in about 20 camps in areas that are deemed to be “fire prone.” Until just a few months ago, there were five such camps pitched along the hillsides above Loma Alta. Had these camps not already been “abated,” the occupants could easily have been cooked last Thursday night. All this, the council was told, will cost $1 million. 

The question, of course, is where City Hall will pitch these new makeshift outdoor communities. And will people use them? Jordan and Friedman have proposed the parking lot by City Hall. They proposed Parking Lot 10. They proposed De la Guerra Plaza. And they also proposed the large Carrillo-Castillo commuter parking lot. This is where a village of similarly motivated “tiny homes” had been proposed a couple of years ago but with the predictably disastrous results that ensue when plans are suddenly sprung on unsuspecting neighborhoods. Also mentioned Tuesday night was Sears’ oceanically vast parking lot, Earl Warren Showgrounds, the old Staples Building, and the County Administration Building. 

Most striking about Tuesday night’s deliberations was the notable lack of neighborhood opposition. That will come, Mayor Cathy Murillo cautioned, just as soon as locations get more specific. 

But this is still good news. The council is taking action. Finally. Maybe. Two weeks from now — when the item comes back before the council.

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