Paso Robles says the riverbed is a fire waiting to happen — here’s the plan to clean it up

Paso Robles will undertake a $300,000 cleanup of the Salinas riverbed, which has become a serious fire hazard for the city, according to emergency officials.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 4-1 to proclaim a local emergency in the Salinas riverbed corridor, which covers 682 acres and runs under the Niblick, 13th Street and Highway 46 bridges.

The riverbed has become overgrown with brush and trees and contains a large number of homeless encampments, according to Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta, who presented the cleanup plan to the council.

One hundred fifteen fires sparked in the riverbed in 2018, and firefighters have already battled dozens of blazes in the area this year, according to a city staff report.

A fire that sparked on June 10 jumped the Niblick Bridge and closed the road for about an hour. Another blaze on June 29 burned about 11.5 acres and raised concerns about blowing embers starting fires in nearby residential areas, Stornetta said.

“When fires like this occur, it does quickly deplete our emergency services,” he said.

Stornetta plans to clear brush, grass and downed trees to create fuel breaks throughout 85.6 acres within the riverbed area. The operation would begin immediately following the conclusion of the California Mid-State Fair and cost $361,600, according to a city staff report.

Homelessness in the riverbed

City Manager Tom Frutchey said on Friday the cleanup effort would likely continue through September, and possibly even into October.

In conjunction with the fire break operation, Police Chief Ty Lewis will hire two additional officers and a sergeant to form a Community Action Team that will deal specifically with the riverbed’s homeless population during the cleanup and beyond.

The additional personnel and equipment will cost $571,770 per year, according to a city staff report. All the additional cleanup and policing expenses will come out of the city’s budget reserves, Frutchey said.

Councilman John Hamon cast the only vote against the emergency proclamation, saying he didn’t think expending hundreds of thousands of tax dollars would change the current situation.

“Is it going to fix the problem?” he asked. “I don’t think it will.

Gail McNichols — president of Paso Cares, a nonprofit that helps the city’s homeless population — expressed support for the city’s efforts to prevent emergency situations but worried about the fate of those living in the riverbed.

“We have concerns about it,” McNichols said. “Obviously, they have to go somewhere, and there are no alternatives.”

The city has plans to build a 36-bed warming shelter, but it won’t be complete until 2021, according to a city staff report.

McNichols said the city has not yet engaged with Paso Cares regarding a homeless encampment cleanup.

Once the Community Action Team is formed, police plan to work with mental health care providers and homeless advocates, including Paso Cares and the El Camino Homeless Organization in Atascadero, Lewis said.

“It does point out that the homelessness is at a crisis point,” McNichols said.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.