Cambria residents still breathing a sigh of relief after a close-call fire June 16 in Fern Canyon, just west of Highway 1, are turning their attention to the related issues of fire danger, illegal encampments and homelessness in the forest.
The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County has set aside Wednesday and Thursday to haul away material and clear the extensive illegal encampment in the canyon near where the fire started.
Meanwhile, the Cambria Fire Department and other officials are working to piece together how the fire started, who started it and how similar situations can be prevented amid the lingering drought.
When the Fern Canyon fire started, Miller said, “the marine layer was in (and) there was absolutely zero wind. Under different circumstances, this could have been something that got out of control real quick.”
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As it was, the fire was extinguished in 15 to 20 minutes, he said.
Hiding in plain sight
A visit to the encampment at midafternoon Monday revealed how extensive it is. A winding path covers several hundred yards, roughly parallel to Highway 1, before the shelter appears at the last minute around the final bend.
“They can hide in plain sight,” Miller noted. “It’s incredible the size and the magnitude of this thing that was going on over here. It’s not something that built itself overnight.”
At the end of the dirt trail Monday stood a wooden stairway complete with a handrail made from tree branches, which led to the residence itself. The interior was a single room, but was extensive: Miller estimates it at 120 to 130 square feet. The wood-paneled structure was equipped with built-in wood shelves, windows, a locking door, sink and even a balcony out back.
The interior had a kitchen on one end, a living area in the middle and a sleeping area at the other end. As of Monday, you could still see a mattress, a couch, canned food, a tea kettle perched above a propane tank and numerous other belongings strewn across the floor and shelves.
Miller said the entire place was powered by a solar panel. More than once, he remarked that the builder could probably make a living professionally building treehouses.
Greeted at the encampment
Upon visiting the encampment Monday, the chief was greeted by Ed Tolosko, who was clearing some belongings he said he’d loaned one of the occupants, whom he described as his adopted son.
“I thought when he borrowed this stuff from me, he was just going to go camping for a little bit,” Tolosko said. “I didn’t know he was going to do this.”
Tolosko said he had his own encampment in the forest for 17 years until recently, when authorities told him he’d have to leave. Fortunately, he said, someone had offered room to stay inside a house.
He said the number of homeless encampments in the forest had increased recently.
“There was only me for the last two years, and then all of a sudden, this place got overrun,” he said. “I’d say there were seven from San Simeon on down.”
On his way to the site, Miller pointed out a gasoline-powered electrical generator among an area of charred tree trunks and branches where the fire had broken out. He said the generator appeared to have been the cause of the fire.
Tolosko, however, disputed that.
“That was my generator, and it didn’t run,” he said. Instead, he blamed two other individuals who had a dispute with his adopted son “over a woman,” accusing them of setting the blaze intentionally.
Miller said he knew the apparent architect of the encampment — the man Tolosko described as his adopted son — as someone who’s been seen riding his bicycle around town: a bicycle equipped with a basket and a sign bearing a confrontational obscenity.
Connections to Wilcombe house
Signs bearing the same obscenity had been seen near the encampment, as well, he said.
Miller reaffirmed that he believed there was “a definite connection” between the encampment and a house on the 2500 block of Wilcombe Road a few hundred yards away, saying that individuals had been seen at both the Wilcombe site and the encampment.
Miller identified the person leasing the house as Christopher John Kehoe, who was arrested in January after authorities reported finding more than 600 images of child pornography on his home computer.
Miller said Kehoe, 49, was at the residence when he and county code enforcement officer Art Trinidade visited the area last week. Miller added that Kehoe is being evicted and must be out of the residence by the end of July.
Pointing to items such as plastic containers of nutritional powder and a chalk signboard at a nearby encampment that appeared to have come from a local eatery, Miller suggested that the residents might have used small-scale burglaries to help build and maintain their sites.
“I think there’s probably some burglaries going on,” he said. “That stuff we saw there, I don’t think they went to the store and bought it.”
Part of the reason the encampment remained hidden for so long, he said, was its isolated location between the dead-ends of Fern Drive and Trenton Avenue. Some of the nearby homes, he added, are vacant for much of the year.
“The house on Fern (closest to the encampment) is a vacation rental,” he said, “and there’s a block of homes on Trenton that are all vacation rentals.
“It’s pretty startling when you see it how concealed it is and the magnitude of it.”
Land Conservancy cleanup
The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County is distributing fliers inviting residents to participate in the effort to clear out the encampment. Participants are advised to bring work boots, work gloves, a hat, safety glasses and drinking water; rubber gloves and facemasks will be provided.
- When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
- What: Bag trash from homeless encampment and dispose of trash and materials into a Dumpster at the end of Trenton Avenue
- Where: North end of Trenton Avenue, Cambria
- Contact: Dylan Theobald, 544-9096, ext. 11, or firstname.lastname@example.org