Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (2022)

Through thickets of flora at City Creek in Highland, San Bernardino County sheriff’s Deputies Mike Jones and Branden Davault led county fire marshal’s inspectors along a narrow, rocky trail to several homeless encampments concealed in the brush.

Holding boxes of 18-inch wooden stakes and stacks of red paper signs, they stapled the signs to the stakes and then hammered them into the ground within and around the encampments. “Unauthorized entry prohibited. Persons entering this area without authorization shall be punished as prescribed by law,” the signs read.

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (1)

    Brandon Grimmett with the San Bernardino County Fire Marshal office places a warning sign prohibiting camping in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (2)

    San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team members Mike Jones (left) and Branden Davault (right) search for a resident of an encampment in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 to warn them of the potential fire danger if they continues to stay in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (3)

    Robert Simmons, 56, peers out of his tent in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 as he speaks with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team deputy Mike Jones as he is warned about the potential fire danger in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (4)

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    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team deputy Mike Jones warns Robert Simmons, 56, as he sits in his tent in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 of the potential fire danger in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (5)

    Assistant Fire Marshal Shelly Beach with San Bernardino County Fire prepares to post fire hazard warning signs in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (6)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal’s enter the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 to warn those in homeless encampments of the potential fire danger in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (7)

    San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team member Mike Jones warns Tomas Diaz, 40, near his encampment in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 of the potential fire danger if he continues to stay in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (8)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal’s enter the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 to warn those in homeless encampments of the potential fire danger in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (9)

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    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal’s office leave a notice on an empty homeless encampment to warn them of the potential fire danger in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (10)

    San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team members Mike Jones (right) and Branden Davault (left) warn Tomas Diaz (center), 40, at his encampment in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 of the potential fire danger if he continues to stay in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (11)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team deputy Mike Jones warns Robert Simmons, 56, as he sits in his tent in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 of the potential fire danger in the area. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (12)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal’s office walk through the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 looking for homeless encampments to warn them of the potential fire danger in the area.. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (13)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal’s office walk through the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 looking for homeless encampments to warn them of the potential fire danger in the area.. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (14)

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    Adam Hensley, with the San Bernardino County Fire Marshal office, places a sign in the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022 warning that it is illegal to camp in the area due to the potential for fire.. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Homeless warned to stay out of mountains and canyons as high fire threat looms (15)

    The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal???s office walk through the City Creek area off of highway 330 in San Bernardino on Thursday, July 28, 2022, looking for homeless encampments to warn them of the potential fire danger in the area.. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s HOPE team and Fire Marshal visited homeless encampments in the canyons and mountain areas posting notices of fire danger and making contact with homeless persons, encouraging them to decamp to safer areas as fire season looms while also offering services to better their situation. It has been part of an ongoing effort that began last year when the county Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution prohibiting homeless encampments in high fire danger areas, especially in the mountains and canyons. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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“Your life’s more important than your camp is,” Jones tells camper Robert Simmons, 56, referring to the high fire danger in the creek and in the foothills and canyons abutting the San Bernardino Mountains.

Simmons peers out from inside his green-and-gray dome tent, and he and Jones converse awhile. Jones informs him of the housing and health care resources available through the county and local nonprofits, and encourages Simmons to relocate due to the dangerous environs.

The team of deputies and fire inspectors continues posting signs and moves on.

Efforts paying off

For the second year, the sheriff’s H.O.P.E. team has swept homeless encampments in the canyons and foothillls at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains in an attempt to move them out, at least during fire season. Targeted areas include Waterman Canyon in San Bernardino, the City Creek area north of Highland Avenue and east of Highway 330, and the Mill Creek wash, east of Bryant Avenue and north of Highway 38, at the Yucaipa-Mentone border.

This year, the H.O.P.E. team ramped up its efforts by partnering with the Fire Marshal’s Office and posting signs. A resolution adopted by the Board of Supervisors last year gives them more leverage in persuading transients to stay out of harm’s way.

The resolution, introduced by Supervisor Janice Rutherford and modeled after one approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in August 2021, authorizes the county’s land use services and code enforcement departments to help clear homeless encampments in “very high fire hazard severity zones,” mainly in the mountains, canyons and foothills.

And the efforts have paid off.

“From our initial contacts this year, there is over a 50% decrease in camps in these severity zones,” Jones said.

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That decrease reflects a minor drop in homeless people living on the street in 2022, and an increase in those taking refuge in shelters and temporary housing, according to the county’s 2022 point-in-time homeless count.

While the H.O.P.E team works independently of the county’s code enforcement and land use services departments, the resolution allows the outreach workers to contact those departments should they need help. Thus far, the H.O.P.E. team has not called on either department for assistance, county spokesman David Wert said in an email.

Jones said 40 to 60 homeless people typically occupy the encampments in Waterman Canyon, City Creek and the Mill Creek wash at any given time. He said City Creek is the biggest of the three, with 20 to 40 homeless people nesting there year-round.

The deputies and fire inspectors posted about 20 signs in the City Creek and Waterman Canyon areas on Thursday, July 28, and made contact with about a dozen homeless individuals, Jones said. They plan to continue sweeping the same areas this week and throughout the duration of fire season, he said.

Cause for concern

The homeless presence in mountain communities has been a source of concern for some residents, prompting complaints to Rutherford and leading to her board resolution.

Homeless camping in turnouts along Highway 18, near the Arrowhead Springs Hotel and up the mountain toward the Crestline turnoff, also has been a concern. Caltrans assesses encampments in highway turnouts for immediate threats to public safety and, when feasible, collaborates with state, city and county agencies to provide essential services and available shelter to people experienceing homelessness, agency spokeswoman Emily Lienen said.

The recently enacted 2022-23 state budget includes $700 million in grants to resolve homeless encampments, of which $350 million will be available to assist people living on the state right-of-way, Lienen said.

In at least one case, conditions were so bad at an encampment in a turnout on Highway 18, north of Old Waterman Canyon Road, that Caltrans was forced to seal off the area with a K-rail, Davault said.

Caltrans posts notices giving homeless campers in highway turnouts 72 hours to vacate. The notices inform them that any personal belongings they leave behind can be retrieved at a nearby Caltrans maintenance yard, Lienen said.

Forest dwellers

The U.S. Forest Service says some homeless individuals have trudged even further into the forest.

At one encampment near the Strawberry Peak fire lookout tower north of Highway 18 near Lake Arrowhead, a fire believed started by homeless campers burned a 50-by-50-foot area last August.

Anyone cited for an illegal campfire on U.S. Forest Service land faces an appearance in federal court. Maximum punishment is a $5,000 fine for an individual, or $10,000 per group, and six months in jail.

On May 26, the Forest Service imposed restrictions, including camping stay limits, on forest recreation areas due to fire danger. The restrictions are in place for a year, agency spokeswoman Yassy Wilkins said.

“The forest’s conditions are constantly reviewed to ensure proper levels are implemented,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins could not say, however, what the Forest Service has been doing recently to deter the homeless presence in the San Bernardino National Forest. That’s because most of the agency’s resources have been allocated to the Oak Fire in Mariposa County, which has burned more than 19,000 acres since it erupted about midnight on July 22 near Yosemite National Park.

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