‘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.
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.