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homeless camp, sycamore drive, fire
A pair of fires were reported at a homeless camp off Sycamore Drive on Oct. 22 and 23. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
Two fires within 10 hours of one another ignited at a homeless camp in an area of dense, 30-foot-tall bamboo off Antelope Road on Oct. 22 and 23.

A half-dozen Metro Fire vehicles responded to the first report of fire shortly after 10 p.m. on Sunday, gaining access to the site by knocking down a portion of a neighbor’s fence on Sycamore Drive, which parallels Antelope Road. The blaze was quickly put out by fire crews, but caused damage to a 20-foot-by-20-foot area and burned a section of a neighbor’s fence on the 7600 block of Sycamore Drive.

Around 6:30 a.m. the following morning, on Oct. 23, Sgt. Jason Baldwin said police received a call about a homeless camp near the site of the fire, but no fire was reported at the time. He said the call was later upgraded in priority when a second call reported a vegetation fire at the location.

Fire crews were subsequently dispatched to the 7600 block of Sycamore Drive again, around 8:30 a.m., and found “smouldering bamboo where the fire was the night before,” according to Metro Fire Captain Chris Vestal. Shortly after 9 a.m., several firefighters were still on scene and were observed spraying the area with water and raking through ground litter and debris.

The location of the fires is a vacant, wooded property located between Sycamore Drive and Antelope Road, near Mariposa Avenue. The vacant property is adjacent to the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church on Sycamore Drive, with another home on Sycamore located about 60 feet away.

When fire crews responded to the initial blaze on Sunday night they reported the area contained “rubbish, a mattress and the bamboo stalks,” according to Metro Fire. Trash and other personal items were also observed strewn around the scene on Friday, along with a separate camp site located nearby in tall bamboo.

Related: what does Citrus Heights’ camping ordinance actually say?

“It looks like there was some people living in a camp,” Sgt. Baldwin confirmed on Thursday. “The fire was started for some reason, probably for cooking or warmth, and the fire caught when the wind hit.”

Baldwin said officers posted a 72-hour abatement notice at the camp site and “will respond this weekend to make sure the camp has been abated.”

Outdoor camping in Citrus Heights has been illegal since 2008, when the city passed an ordinance banning it. The only exceptions to the ban are: if the area is “clearly marked for public camping purpose,” or if the camp is located in the rear or sideyard of a residential structure where it is not visible from the public right-of-way. The only other exceptions are for events, such as the city’s annual “Community Campout” at Rusch Park, or if a temporary use permit for camping is issued by the city.

How does CHPD respond to homeless camp calls?
Sgt. Jason Baldwin said police protocol for reports about homeless camps result in officers first being dispatched to verify there is in fact a camp at the location reported. If there’s anyone at the camp when police arrive, officers will then take enforcement action and notify the city’s homeless navigator.

Enforcement can include a warning, if the individuals have not been warned previously. A citation for illegal camping can also be issued, and in some cases an arrest can also be made for the camping violation. Baldwin said if officers find other illegal activity going on at the camp, “they will enforce on that as well.”

When someone is not found at the camp when police arrive, which is often the case, officers will then post an unlawful camping notice at the site and follow up after 72 hours. If the camp has not been abated after 72 hours, Baldwin said code enforcement staff will get involved to notify property owners that they have to clean up the trash and other items at the site, typically giving them 10 days to abate the camp.

He said camps on public property are referred to the city’s general services division for abatement.

Why are camps given 72 hours notice?
“We have to give people time to remove their property; we can’t just show up and say we’re taking all your property,” said Baldwin, when asked why police have a 72-hour policy before taking further abatement action. “Even if it’s illegal, we have to give them time to remove.”

Baldwin said the 72-hour policy in Citrus Heights is believed to have come from a court case, but said he would look into the issue to provide a more definitive answer. A Sentinel review of Citrus Heights’ camping ordinance did not find a 72-hour requirement specified, and other regional jurisdictions are known to give a shorter period of time for abatement — like Sacramento County, which gives 48-hours notice before cleaning up camps.

Share your thoughts on homelessness in Citrus Heights: Click here to submit a letter to the editor for publication.

fire, Citrus Heights
Metro Fire crews respond to a reported vegetation fire off Sycamore Drive in Citrus Heights on Oct. 23, 2017. // CH Sentinel

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