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‘Campers’ on Montini Preserve being evicted due to fire danger

Last weekend, an amateur astronomer up past midnight to watch the Perseid meteor shower saw the red glow of fire in the woods above the Field of Dreams, and called the fire department at 1:30 a.m.

“The fire was located 400 feet up the Spotted Fawn Trail from the (Sonoma County Water Agency) storage tanks,” read the incident report from Sonoma Valley Fire. “The fire was a total of 0.27 acres, grassy oak woodland fuel model. No injuries or property damage was reported. The cause of the fire is suspicious and under investigation.”

In a column asking whether the fire was “related to a homeless population,” the answer was “Yes.”

Neighbors and officials have shared fears that the homeless encampments in the woods would one day start a wildfire. With the early onset of fire season – hot weather, dry vegetation and high winds – this concern becomes more than just a neighborhood issue.

According to a list of fires in the City of Sonoma provided by Fire Marshall Trevor Smith of the Sonoma Valley Fire District, it was the ninth homeless-related fire in the city since the beginning of the year, and the sixth in the Montini Preserve area. The Aug. 14 fire was just 10 days after another quarter-acre wildland fire in the preserve.

It was the Aug. 4 incident that prompted action from a broad array of parties, who over the course of two Zoom meetings – on Aug. 13 and Aug. 17 – met to hash out an action plan and find solutions for the handful of homeless people who continue to inhabit camps on the preserve, posing a fire risk.

The team assembled over the course of two meetings included Kathy King of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez and Deputy Steven Lucchetti, Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, Richard Dale and Erica Warren from Sonoma Ecology Center, the Sonoma Overlook Trail steward Jessica Misuraca, and Montini and Overlook volunteers Roy Tennant, Lynn Clary and Greg Taylor.

“With the many recent fires, the tipping point has arrived. It can no longer be denied that more oversight and care of these lands is critical. We very much want to be kind and compassionate, but the price has become too high.” Sonoma Overlook Trail steward Jessica Misuraca

Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti and Councilmember Kelso Barnett came on board, lending the authority of city government to the discussion.

They were all united in the goal of reducing fire risk by removing the encampments from the wooded properties on the north side of Sonoma, and finding a compassionate solution for the people themselves. Where that solution will be remains uncertain.

Despite some misgivings about the idea of evicting the “unhoused,“ ecology center Executive Director Dale said, ”We realized we needed to do something to protect the people, the preserve, and the larger community. Leaving the situation as it is, is a significant risk to everyone.”

Lucchetti and Clary walked the wooded acres this week, posting eviction notices that would allow law enforcement to arrest anyone found in violation.

“WARNING! If you are staying in or near Montini or Sonoma Overlook Trail, you need to move ASAP! AND PLEASE DO NOT LIGHT CAMPFIRES! Because of the recent campfires, the Sheriff’s Department will clear the encampments on Wednesday, September 1, 2021. All your belongings will be removed,” the sign reads.

The notice then gives contact information to sign up for “potential shelter placement.” According to a court ruling, homeless individuals must be given the opportunity to be moved to a new location or shelter before their encampment is cleared.

Fire danger: High

Yet, said King, “It is legal to remove people from an area because of fire danger,” and the Montini Preserve area surely qualifies. The six fires since the beginning of the year – a seventh was on Dec. 6 – all occurred in the area that includes the Montini Preserve, the Sonoma Overlook Trail, the east side of Norrbom Road and privately owned land.

One home on High Road off Norrbom suffered fire and smoke damage in the December fire. But despite the threat posed to homes and city property – including the water towers above the Field of Dreams – property damage from the fires has fortunately been limited. A fire on June 23 burned 5 acres near the City’s water tanks, the largest and most dangerous so far – now, daily hikers cut across the charred land on the popular Holstein Trail.

It was the early-morning Aug. 14 fire that caught Councilmember Kelso Barnett’s attention. Calling it “obviously a serious cause for concern,” he emailed Agrimonti and found an action plan was already underway, via the coalition.

In joining the effort, the councilman met with Agrimonti and others on Aug. 17 to discuss next steps. This time they were joined by Bill Montini, the owner of Montini Ranch, 98 acres of which was sold to Sonoma County Ag and Open Space and in 2014 deeded to the City to create the Montini Preserve.

SOTMontiniMapWithGrid2.pdf

“With the many recent fires, the tipping point has arrived. It can no longer be denied that more oversight and care of these lands is critical,” said Misuraca of the Sonoma Overlook Trail. “We very much want to be kind and compassionate, but the price has become too high.“

The action didn’t take a city council meeting, or a referendum or a vote: All it took was focused attention from the city, fire and law enforcement, volunteers and homeless services advocates.

“I feel like the city has always taken (the fire danger) seriously, but it’s come to a point now where everyone is working together,” Barnett said. Still, he emphasized that everyone was approaching the issue “with compassion” for the people who live off-the-gird, if inside city limits.

“We can talk about trees and parks and traffic, but none of it matters if the town burns down,” said Barnett.

Dwellers on the fringes

“What I’ve been telling people is, do not approach these people. Don’t engage,” King told the Index-Tribune. “It’s not that they’re violent, I don’t think any of them have an axe to grind – it’s just that they don’t want to be living near other people. They want to do what they want to do.”

Barnett was also understanding. “Why wouldn’t you camp there? It’s a million-dollar view, relatively isolated, yet you can walk down to the Plaza in 15 minutes.”

Rancher Montini said that “campers” squatting on the property is not a new problem. “There was a problem probably 15 years ago, quite a few people living up there – the sheriff came in and rousted them out and they never came back.”

He said that over time they began to return, possibly when Sonoma Overnight Support began to provide services for Sonoma’s homeless just down the hill in 2007. “When they put that safe haven over there, that’s when it kicked up again.”

It’s safety that is top of mind for everyone. Chief Rodriguez saw no real gray area. “There is a fire risk, we can’t have people camping in areas that are at risk,” he said. “It’s a hazard and safety issue for the public, that’s our concern.”

Removing the homeless encampments is the necessary first step, they all agreed.

“If we don’t, pretty soon when you drive up Broadway, all you’ll see is charcoal,” said Montini.

With the help of volunteers like Clary, who has lived in Sonoma all his life and has walked the Montini property almost daily for 12 years, the fire department has identified eight homeless encampments in the area. King said she thought four of them may be abandoned and four still active. Mapping the encampments has also given the fire department another tool – fire response can now head for “Encampment B” or another similar identification.

King said she was familiar with some of the individuals; some come down to shower occasionally at the Haven, some show up at the Springs Community Hall for a free meal.

“We’ve engaged with them and told them they can’t be up there, they just can’t,” she said.

“Some of these folks actually do not want to live in a structure and do not consider themselves homeless; they want to live in the wild,” said Misuraca.

Understandably, efforts to get them to move to shelters don’t always work. “For some of them it’s too hard to follow the rules. They don’t want to be inside,” said King.

As one of the options is a 12-by-12 trailer at Los Guilicos, their hesitation may seem understandable. Yet at present that’s the only county option available in the First District, and while 15 of the trailers there are earmarked for Sonoma Valley residents, King said Sonoma in fact only has access to seven due to shifting county priorities.

"We have no place to move our people, even though it’s in our district,“ said King. She expressed hope that Sonoma’s recent interim City Manager Dave Kiff, now serving as interim executive director of Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC), might be sympathetic to the homeless issues specific to the Valley.

”He gets it,“ she said.

Dale, of the ecology center, offered a broader perspective. “We also see this as an opportunity to again remind the community that the current housing situation in Sonoma Valley is a crisis, not just for those who have to resort to camping along streams and open spaces around the Valley, but for a large part of our community,” he said.

Contact Christian Kallen at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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