Fire exposes possible problem with transients
TRUCKEE — A recent abandoned campfire turned wildfire in the hills above this historic town sparked some concern over the problems posed by a growing transient population residing in makeshift camps in the area.
Luckily, the Sept. 14 blaze, which occurred in the Coldstream Canyon area near Jackass Ridge in the hills behind the Long’s and Albertson’s shopping center on Deerfield Drive in — consumed only half an acre after it was quickly squelched by Truckee, Squaw Valley and U.S. Forest Service fire crews.
However, high winds that day had everyone on edge.
“If (firefighters) hadn’t gotten to it so quickly, it could have burned down the hill right into Truckee,” said Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger.
According to John Holcumb, a zone fire management officer with the USFS, an investigation into the cause of the incident traced back to an abandoned campfire surrounded by empty beer bottles.
“We don’t know whether the campfire was the reminisce of a high school party or left by transients camping out in the area,” he said. “It was either one or the other and there’s not really any way to tell who is to blame. That area is a popular spot with both groups.”
Considering the small scale of the incident, Holcumb said further investigation into the fire is unlikely, however, longtime Jackass Ridge resident Stefanie Olivieri worries that similar incidents in the future may not have such a happy ending.
“Our firefighters are wonderful about responding to these incidents, but one of these days, there’s going to be a fire up there on a windy day that crews cannot get to in time and it could burn everything down the hill, into town,” she said.
Olivieri said she’s been dealing with the problem of transients camping on and around her property for several years now. Recently, she even went as far as to hire a private security guard to patrol the area, but little has changed.
“There’s been numerous times when I’ve smelled smoke and gone onto the back acreage of my property only to find 10 tents that had sprung up in just a matter of days,” she said. “I’ve found campfires — 15 feet in circumference — left unattended and roaring, and the area covered in litter. It has become a regular ongoing occurrence.”
Local resident Glenn Dunney said he too, has the seen the campfires and debris left behind by transients while hiking through the area.
“One time, I remember passing a group of 15 to 20 people drinking around an illegal campfire in an area densely populated by 20-foot tall pine trees,” Dunney said. “I didn’t stop and talk to them, but I did call the Sheriff because I was worried about the campfire being so close to those trees.”
Dunney carefully watched crews battle this recent blaze from afar, shooting pictures of a helicopter filling and refilling its bucket in Donner Lake to use in an aerial attack on the fire.
Olivieri said she believes a majority of the transients are part-time workers, who move to Truckee in the summer with their families for various construction projects and other odd jobs — workers that cannot afford the steep housing and rental prices in the area.
“This problem is really a larger one that the town needs to address,” she said. “It has to do with the fact that there is no affordable housing in Truckee. There is no workforce housing for these types of seasonal workers, so they really have no other options that to camp out.”
Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger agrees that the problem stems from the lack of housing, however, it’s a problem that that he says will be difficult to solve.
“A good portion of these people are living here illegally and few speak English, so it’s very difficult to talk to them,” he said. “Often times when we’ve approached them, they run off and disappear into the woods. I don’t think that many people camping out there are truly aware of the fire dangers either.”
Terwilliger says fire crews, law enforcement and other agencies try to patrol the area, but lack the resources and manpower to really solve the problem.
“Another problem is that even if we kick these people out of this area, they’ll just go somewhere else, like the other camping region behind Safeway,” he said. “It’s not just Truckee that has this problem either. There are similar campgrounds in Floriston and Farad. Luckily, we don’t deal with a huge amount of fires as a result of these campers, but we are concerned with the forest and human health issues that they present as well.”
Olivieri stressed that the town needs to stop developing high-end planned communities until it adequately deals with its current demands for affordable housing.
“Until some changes are made, it really puts the problem on the back of property owners like myself,” she said. “I deeply sympathize with these people that have no place to live, but as a property owner, I’ve almost lost my property several times now. Something needs to be done.”
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