Vegetation fire in Goleta
Firefighters battle a vegetation fire burning along Highway 101 and the railroad tracks in Goleta on July 13. Fire officials said that the blaze, which blackened about an acre, apparently began in a homeless encampment in the area. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk file photo)

Two recent vegetation fires along the Highway 101 corridor in Goleta started in homeless encampments, and the city wants to remove flammable material from the areas without displacing the residents.

“We understand this is a serious public safety concern, and we do not take lightly the risk to life and property posed by these encampment fires,” city spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.

There is a lot of dry brush and eucalyptus trees along the Highway 101 corridor that can catch fire and burn intensely, according to Capt. Daniel Bertucelli of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. A small fire in an area like that can turn into a significant fire in a short amount of time, he added.

However, Caltrans, which has cleaned up the corridor area in the past, temporarily suspended encampment cleanups because of the COVID-19 pandemic and out of fear of spreading the virus among the vulnerable population, “unless there is an immediate safety concern,” spokesman Jim Shivers said.

“The best way to prevent those fires from starting is to not have people living there to begin with,” Bertucelli said.

The fear of spreading COVID-19 has complicated what the city and outside agencies are safely able to do to address the encampment fires.

According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clearing homeless encampments can cause those individuals to disperse throughout the community and increase the potential for the virus to spread.

“It is admittedly one of the most challenging problems we face as a city,” Hoover said.

People living on the streets and in large congregate shelter settings are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, according to California’s Department of Social Services. They often lack access to sanitation, quarantine and health care services, putting them at a higher risk of infection.

United Way’s Home for Good Santa Barbara program holds weekly outreach meetings for the South County to address the homelessness issue and to work toward creating solutions to safely get people out of encampments, thus reducing the risk of vegetation fires.

Home for Good Santa Barbara frequently partners with the county’s behavioral wellness services because of their familiarity with the encampments, according to Emily Allen, United Way’s director of homeless and veterans program.

“The long-term solution for us is to get people off the streets,” Allen said. “If we move people from an encampment without giving them a place to go, it’s likely that they’ll just set up another encampment.”

The guidance that cities and law enforcement have received is not to displace people in encampments because of their susceptibility to the virus and the potential of spreading it if they disperse throughout the community, Allen said.

“While the city respects and understands the need for the public health guidance discouraging homeless encampment cleanup efforts, it also recognizes the need to maintain the safety of homes and businesses near these encampment fires,” Hoover said.

Goleta is a partner in California’s Project Roomkey, a program that provides people experiencing homelessness, and who are recovering from or have been exposed to COVID-19, a place to recuperate and properly quarantine outside of a hospital.

Project Roomkey turns hotels and motels into noncongregate shelters to take individuals experiencing homelessness out of encampments without dispersing them into the surrounding areas. With the help of PATH, a homeless shelter in Santa Barbara, qualified individuals are temporarily housed in those buildings, according to Allen.

Goleta also partnered with Santa Barbara County to provide other people experiencing homelessness access to beds at PATH.

However, the focus has shifted from moving people to temporary shelters, such as those provided by PATH and Project Roomkey, to more permanent housing, according to Allen.

“Harm reduction measures help, but ultimately, permanent housing is the way to get people out of the encampments and reduce the risk of another fire,” Allen said.

Goleta drafted its first comprehensive Homeless Strategic Plan in fall 2019 to analyze community needs and to create plans of action that can be taken to assist homeless individuals.

“We’re really trying to craft a plan that looks at all of the information we have to determine where we are right now, what are our needs as a community and region, and how we can comprehensively address those needs through short-term, mid-term and long-term goals,” said Dominique Samario, a management analyst at the Department of Neighborhood Services and Public Safety.

The plan was presented to the Homelessness Issues Standing Committee on Wednesday.

“We will continue to work to lessen the chance that these homeless encampment fires will happen again,” Samario said.

The city also created the Union Pacific Railroad/Highway 101 Corridor Safety Task Force last year to increase communication among agencies and to plan actionable steps to keep the area clear of debris.

“The main goal is to increase communication, talk about pressing issues in the corridor and really look at coordinated responses to those different issues,” Samario said.

The task force is made up of more than 20 members from multiple county departments, including the Fire Department, the County Association of Governments, Union Pacific Railroad, the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Goleta collaborated with other agencies to clear debris from encampments along the Highway 101 corridor, according to Mayor Paula Perotte. Last September, the city had a four-day cleanup that resulted in 12 large trash bins of debris, she added.

“The main goal is coordination between these agencies to address issues that affect all of us,” Samario said. “We will continue to work to lessen the chance that these homeless encampment fires will happen again.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.