By any reckoning, Victor Angel Hernandez has a scary relationship with fire. On May 20, Hernandez — a 23-year-old homeless person with a taste for methamphetamine — is alleged to have set the Loma Alta hillside on fire the windswept night of May 20, scaring not only nearby residents but the Santa Barbara City Council. It was Hernandez’s pyrotechnics that panicked the council into spending $1.6 million to reserve the entire Rose Garden Inn for homeless people encamped in high-risk, high-fire zones.
It turns out the Loma Alta fire was started the same day Hernandez was released from the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility, where he’d been placed against his will for allegedly trying to set himself on fire 10 days before. The description of that incident — as detailed in prosecuting attorney Kevin Weichbrod’s legal briefs before Judge Pauline Maxwell this week — is chilling.
A neighborhood mom saw Hernandez douse himself with gasoline on the campus of McKinley Elementary School the afternoon of May 10. He drank some, too. Kids were just out of school. Cops were called. Although Hernandez denied any suicidal intent, he reeked of gasoline. Police reported he was carrying four lighters and a small butane torch. Joe Poire, who just retired as the city fire marshal, predicted that if Hernandez had ignited himself, “He would likely run around in tremendous pain and eventually fall somewhere, starting a fire on either private property or the surrounding bushes and shrubs.”
That is the basis of just one of several felony counts Weichbrod is filing against Hernandez. All of them combined could land Hernandez behind bars for a maximum of 15 years and eight months. It would be surprising if Hernandez’s attorney Michael Manley does not express incredulity that his client’s suicide attempt could be construed as an act of attempted arson. What eventually happens to Hernandez could be left up to a Santa Barbara jury to decide.
But there’s little question that the young man — who until recently lived outdoors on the lower Westside — has struggled with the twin demons of substance abuse and serious mental-health issues. These struggles play out daily, hiding in plain sight among many of the growing legion of people living under bridges, along our urban creeks, and among the city’s abundant flora and fauna. Government officials — elected and otherwise — have scrambled to find answers. Even with unprecedented federal dollars — thanks to emergency COVID funding — those answers are not obvious.
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In the City of Santa Barbara, the Loma Alta fire triggered the council to take aggressive action to clear the homeless camps and find alternative housing. To date, 37 outdoor dwellers have been placed at the Rose Garden Inn. Police have been called twice since the program started; both calls were resolved without incident. Everyone offered a room, reportedly, has accepted the offer. But that program expires after four months. Where then? The city and county housing authorities combined have been given 215 emergency housing vouchers targeting the homeless. As an enticement, landlords will get paid $1,500 as a signing bonus, plus $2,000 as a security deposit. But Rob Fredericks, chief executive of the city’s Housing Authority,` expressed concern: “There aren’t enough units, and the rents are climbing.”
For County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard, the city’s shift might pose unintended problems. Since the county is not chasing homeless people out of encampments, he worries Santa Barbara city’s new approach might bring more outdoor dwellers to the Goleta Valley. Though county inspectors visit the camps, preaching fire safety, many dwellers may be too intoxicated or mentally unstable to understand.
This Tuesday, for example, a small fire broke out at an encampment upslope from the Creekside Inn near Hollister and Modoc roads, in county jurisdiction. What had been an encampment of two people had grown to 16. Ten county firefighters and three county fire engines were dispatched to the scene. Between January and July 1, county firefighters responded to four vegetation fires started near homeless encampments, 16 illegal campfires, and four rubbish fires. Most of those, Hazard noted, happened in May. “You see the trend,” he added.
In the court this Wednesday morning, defense attorney Michael Manley had only just received new filings from prosecutors. As usually happens, the case was remanded to a future date, August 4.
CORRECTION: The headline of this story has been updated to include the word “Suspected.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.