The Cambrian

Homeless in the forest: Tenants in a tinderbox

A canvas, blanket, menu signboard and other belongings in a canyon down the hill from Trenton Avenue, just east of Highway 1 — near the site of a recent fire — Saturday, June 20.
A canvas, blanket, menu signboard and other belongings in a canyon down the hill from Trenton Avenue, just east of Highway 1 — near the site of a recent fire — Saturday, June 20. sprovost@thetribunenews.com

A forest blaze on June 16 near an elaborate, illegally constructed and somewhat bizarre hidden residence near Fern Canyon has ignited intense conversations about the dangers of illegal campsites and the fire threat they pose to Cambria residents and their forest. 

Those discussions are escalating just as the Cambria Community Services District is set to consider Thursday, June 25, a one-year contract that would replace retiring Fire Chief Mark Miller with interim services provided by Cal Fire. 

The overlapping debates about fire prevention, causes and coverage have heated up as the area faces a punishing fourth summer season of drought. The forest is dry, many of the cherished native Monterey pine trees are dead or dying, and residents are scared about the what-ifs of being safe and prepared should a small North Coast fire turn into a conflagration.

On Friday, June 19, Cal Fire issued a ban across San Luis Obispo County on burning as the agency takes “every step possible to prevent new wildfires from starting,” according to Chief Robert Lewin. 

With countywide and statewide declarations of drought emergency in place, triggered by exceptionally dry conditions, Cal Fire suspended all burning permits and open fires in the areas within the agency’s jurisdiction, including the North Coast. 

Fireworks of any kind are also forbidden.

Encampment

Firefighters were sent to the encampment blaze between Highway 1 and the ends of Trenton Drive/Emerson Road at about 9:04 p.m. June 16. Crews from Cambria Fire Department and Cal Fire estimate they extinguished the fire with 15 to 20 minutes, remaining at the scene to cut a fire line through the heavy brush, poison oak and trees, ensuring that the fire was out and would stay that way. 

Since then, fire and sheriff’s investigators have repeatedly checked the area, as have the head of the county’s code enforcement division Art Trinidade and stewardship staffers from the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County.

The conservancy owns the land on which the strange structure was built, and is therefore responsible for its removal and cleanup of the area.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. James Taylor of the Coast Division said in an email that “we served the illegal campers with a 72-hour notice to vacate, and have been checking back periodically. My deputies tell me that they are encountering people in the camp who are removing items of property, but it does not appear anyone is staying there.”

Daniel Bohlman, LCSLO’s conservation director, said “Homelessness is a huge problem in our county. Conservation properties where you don’t have a land steward on the property at all times are places where people can find refuge,” even when it’s illegal for them to do so.

He said that while “we monitor our properties every year, these things can spring up. We only have so many resources” with which to track the problem, and “squatters’ rights make it difficult. We could post the properties” but “we doubt that Cambrians would want us posting signs every 25 feet on the properties,” as required by law. “It’s a delicate dance.”

The ‘house’

According to fire officials, the well-disguised structure of about 15-by-8 feet was built up against the hillside and was shielded from view by a dense strand of trees and brush. The shelter included a roof, door, windows and balcony. It also had a solar collector, propane barbecue grill and a gas-powered generator that may have been a source of the fire, firefighters said. Pathways wound through the brush to the structure, and path railings were made of stripped tree branches.

Trinidade called the encampment “quite amazing,” noting that it couldn’t be seen from the road and, as Fire Chief Mark Miller said, “we could see the fire long before we could see the encampment, which was only about 30 feet away from the blaze.”

Some of the people seen at the illegal encampment also have been seen at a house on Wilcombe where the current renters are being evicted, according to Trinidade and Miller.

Trinadade said heirs of the late owner have been “working hard to get rid of tenants that caused all the problems” in the longstanding case that code enforcement officials have been “actively pursuing.” 

Other sites

Officials and residents fret that this fire was just the sort of incident that could have turned into a major tragedy. Fortunately, a woman at the encampment reportedly dashed up the hill to notify a neighbor, who immediately called 911. 

But Cambria might not be so lucky next time.

Estimates vary about how many illegal campsites there are in Cambria and San Simeon, ranging from five to 13 or more. The North Coast can be ideal for people who live in illegal campsites. The area has a moderate climate and various locations that are well screened from the nearby highway and trails. Many of those areas are equally close to neighborhoods, some of which include homes that are only occupied part time. 

Add a forest filled with extremely dry tinder, brush and many dead and dying trees, and it could be a prescription for disaster.

Indeed, another incident was reported at about 8:45 p.m. Saturday, June 20, according to William Hollingsworth, captain at Cambria Fire Department. 

“We had a report of smoke next to the creek a little south of Cambria Drive, on the west side of Highway 1. It was a rubbish fire” by a squatter there. “He was quite upset they were being harassed about the fire, but we have a zero-tolerance policy to burning,” especially under the current conditions.

Cmdr. Taylor said, “Whenever we find one of these camps, we will serve the 72-hour notice to vacate. If the land is privately held, we will determine the ownership, contact the owner and make them aware of the problem. If the owner doesn’t want the illegal camping to stop, we then tell them they must follow the county ordinances regarding operating campgrounds. 

“In my experience, when the property owner learns they are obligated to provide potable water supplies, proper sanitation facilities, showers, etc., their desire to be altruistic comes to an abrupt end,” Taylor said. 

“No one wants to be hard-hearted towards these people, but the danger that a fire breaking out in one of these illegal camps poses to the people in Cambria is just too great for us to continue to turn a blind eye,” he said. “I would make the analogy that under present fire conditions, ignoring them is like playing Russian roulette with the public's safety.”

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