SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sierra Club’s Sacramento chapter is asking city and county officials to move hundreds of homeless residents along the American River Parkway into shelters and safe ground spaces, citing an increase in wildfires it says are often tied to homeless camps.

In a report and letter sent to city and county leaders Thursday, the environmental group points to an analysis it put together using public records from fire departments covering the parkway. With 156 fires last year, the parkway saw three times as many fires as in 2019, the report states.

Among the chief reasons for the increase, according to the group: A surge in homeless camps along the river.

“Most fires occur on the Sacramento section of the parkway and the increase in fires coincides with the stop of enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance,” the report states, referring to a county rule that used to allow officials to issue citations for unlawful camping. That ordinance, and others like it, were found to be unconstitutional as a result of a 2018 federal court decision.

While climate change, rising temperatures and a prolonged drought also fuel the wildfire risk, blazes along the parkway “often start in or near the camps, where cigarettes, campfires, and stoves provide ignition,” according to the nine-page report. The majority of fires in recent years — more than 90% — have occurred on the north side of the river, “where a large number of the camps are.”

From 2016 through 2021 the agencies responsible for fire protection along the parkway responded to 536 fires, according to the Sierra Club’s analysis.


The environmental impacts of the fires on plants and animals haven’t been documented, the report says, but — citing a draft version of a county natural resources plan for the parkway — the area “provides a critical link between the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley for migratory species such as mountain lions and mule deer.” It’s also a home to birds, rodents and reptiles.

The fires present a “major public safety risk,” the group said, blaming city and county officials for failing to provide adequate shelter for homeless residents, “leaving the American River Parkway to become a de facto homeless shelter for an estimated 750 people.”

Many homeless residents camp along the lower parkway because police have swept them from other locations, homeless advocates have said. They make fires to prepare food and survive in the winter and during cold nights.

Advocates have for years tried to get the county and city to provide fire safety measures for homeless people along the parkway, like special fire pits where they can safely cook, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

“They haven’t done that,” he said. “They only have themselves to blame for not being proactive.”

County officials, meanwhile, are pointing to recent increases in funding for homelessness efforts along the parkway and to prevent fires in the area.


Because the letter and report were sent late Thursday afternoon, the county on Friday declined to comment on it specifically, but county Spokeswoman Kim Nava pointed to the “extensive work” officials are doing along the parkway this year, including $940,000 allocated annually for a parkway specific service team, beginning this fiscal year.

County Supervisor Don Nottoli said Friday he didn’t have a chance yet to review the report in full but acknowledged the work that went into putting it together. “We know the fire threat is real,” he said.

A 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. Boise prohibits local governments from citing homeless people for camping on public property unless a shelter bed is available. All city and county shelter beds tend to be full on any given night.

“The county and the city must create more places for the homeless to safely stay,” the Sierra Club’s report states, adding that the county, which is responsible for the parkway, needs to resume enforcement of its anti-camping ordinance “but only when it can meet the demands” set forth by the 2018 court decision.

The county, the report argues, should consider efforts similar to a city ballot measure that will go before voters in November. That measure, if passed, would require the city to provide shelter beds for 60% of its homeless population or face lawsuits.

County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy previously told the Bee he plans to bring a similar ordinance to the board later this year.


To Erlenbusch, however, enforcing anti-camping ordinances is “incredibly counterproductive.”

“If you criminalize people experiencing homelessness, then potentially they go to jail or have these huge fines, which makes it really difficult to find housing and really difficult to find a job,” he said.

The move by the Sierra Club marks the latest effort by American River Parkway advocates to clear out camps along the river.

The American River Parkway Foundation in January demanded that county and city leaders produce a detailed plan to address how they’re going to move “at least 750 illegal campers” from the parkway this year. The Sierra Club the following month sent a letter to the city and county in support of the foundation’s letter.

And earlier this month, the parkway and associated camps became the focus of a group of Democratic state lawmakers when they publicly threw their support behind a bill that would declare it to be an area of “special parklands.” That bill would allow the removal of illegal campsites that the legislators say create a danger to residents and homeless individuals, spark illegal fires and leave litter.

The American River Parkway Foundation’s demand letter prompted the Sierra Club to start looking at the issue, said Brad Branan, a Sierra Club executive committee member and the author of the group’s recent report.

“And we had some very in-depth discussions, because it’s a sensitive issue,” Branan said. “Because, you know, we’re all Democrats and we don’t want to harm the homeless more than they’ve already been harmed. But we’re also concerned, gravely concerned, about what is happening in the parkway.”

“The fact that one fourth of the parkway has burned is a pretty big deal,” he added. The status quo, the group decided, is bad both for the homeless and the environment.