A few days ago, when the Glass Fire was burning its way into eastern Santa Rosa and people were being evacuated in a hurry and homes were not only threatened but burned to the ground, I saw a little internet blip about a fire in Monte Rio. And that’s all I ever saw about it. I just assumed that it was a mistake or so minor an event that it was no longer worth mentioning.

Bob Jones column photo

Bob Jones

Then, last Thursday, the daily newspaper from the big city to the east of us reported that on the last Sunday of September there was indeed a Monte Rio fire up a steep slope off Bohemian Highway that started in a homeless camp there. When this fire was discovered, the Monte Rio firefighters were helping in the battle against the Glass Fire. So, Steve Baxman, chief of the Monte Rio Fire Protection District, called neighboring districts and put together a crew that got the fire surrounded before it burned much more than an acre. Then they watched over it to make sure there was no flare up.

Baxman is admired, esteemed and all but revered for what he has done over many years to protect the small communities of the lower Russian River. Rightly so. He just seems to get done what needs to be done when it needs to be done. So, it was once again in the recent Monte Rio fire, thanks be to all that’s holy.

Baxman told reporters that fires escaping from homeless camps have been frequent in the river area over the summer. People are living in the woods, cooking and keeping warm with open fires amid tinder dry surroundings. So far, because of the likes of Steve Baxman and his colleagues, none of these fires has gotten out of control.

But I’m telling you, this is scary. Several times in the 20th century fires swept through the river area, and some burned all the way to the coast. And that was before global warming arrived, or at least before global warming was on our minds.

So, what we have are clusters of people living in the woods because they have no place else to live, and that poses a danger to us all. It puts many houses, stores, schools and churches, not to mention many lives, at risk. There has to be a better, more sensible way.

But before we condemn and destroy the homeless camps, we have to provide places for the homeless to live. Otherwise we just move the danger around from one forest to the next. Homeless people have to be someplace, for crying out loud. And they need to be where it’s safe for themselves and where they are not creating dangers for others. We just have to do better about this.

Sure, the cost of housing the homeless would be expensive. No doubt about that. But it’s not nearly as expensive as a wildfire like the one in 1937 that took out half the town of Guerneville and went roaring to the west for miles. The way things are right now, this is more likely to happen than not, it seems to me.

So, fire prevention includes making sure our neighbors have homes. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, in helping those who need some help, we also help ourselves. That’s the lesson for today, folks. Many it be so.

(5) comments

MKH

The County has been approved for a grant to purchase the Hotel Azure in Santa Rosa for $11 million. That's about $296,000 per motel room plus on-going expenses of 3K per resident per month. This cost does not address mental health or drug addiction. It seems there must be a more efficient way to house people and address these foundational issues. 42 people represents 1.4% of Sonoma County's 3000 homeless people. Perhaps, we should look at allowing $50K per homeless person and seeing what solutions the homeless person would come up with - perhaps there could be a housing liaison that could help the homeless person look at their existing benefits and see where they could afford to live with their benefits and a housing stipend? Perhaps, the housing liaison could help the person find a program to stabilize their mental health or treat their addiction. Many homeless people will never be able to afford to live in Northern California on their own because of past trauma, disability or other issues. They may or may not be able to hold down full-time jobs. Once they are stabilized, they might need to spend time going to AA meetings or therapy or other supportive programs. Is it realistic to think that person who can only be marginally employed will be able to transition into self-sufficiency in Northern California, which has some of the highest living costs in the nation. Could Sonoma County work with partner organizations in other, cheaper parts of the country and help homeless people re-settle there with a $30K stipend from California. Many working people move from Northern California because it is too expensive. These are people with jobs and skills. It seems financially impossible, in our current tax system, to try and permanently support a high number of non-working and marginally working adults. As homelessness is a national problem, we should look to national solutions. $30K per year is actually a working salary in many places in the United States. For $300K, you can buy a 3 bedroom home in many, many places in the United States. I don't think buying hotels addresses mental health issues, addiction issues or really sets people up to transition to stability. Where will they go after the hotel room? Where would they be able to live?

chram

There is a lesson to be learned here. There already are housing alternatives available for those that want to avail themselves of it. The ones in the forest with substance abuse issues threatening to burn down our towns are not interested in alternative housing. Fortunately the community is stepping up to protect ourselves from this illegal and dangerous behavior.

MKH

As easy and economical way to help homeless people would be to have Community Service Residences. These would be KOA style campgrounds with RV, car and tent sites. Homeless people could bring in their RVs, tents and cars. There could be bathrooms, social services, community kitchens and a centralized location for volunteers. AA and NA could host regular meetings. Residents would contribute 10-20 hours per work on public community service such as trail maintenance and garbage pick up. They would also have a community job in their camp. People suffering from mental illness could be identified and helped. Homeless people can contribute to their own stability and to society. Homelessness does not help anyone. It does not help the homeless person. It also creates many health and wellness issues for the community at large from sanitation and garbage to fires. As it is expensive to house people and local and state governments are facing huge deficits due to the pandemic, we need economical ways for people to be housed and have a stable address. We need more money toward addiction and mental health services as data shows that over 60% of homeless people struggle with addictions and mental health issues. At it's root, homelessness might be more of a health care issue than a housing issues and to address it as health care, we should concentrate funding on health services and minimize housing expenses. We have many options but letting people live in areas that are not zoned for residences is does absolutely nothing for everybody.

Sizzle

I heard about this fire from my son who listens to the scanner. Did you know there was another small one on Coleman Valley Road (on the coast side of the ridge) over this past weekend? Nothing in the PD that I noticed. Aside from the homeless issue, which is grave, there is also an issue of timely information about these dangers. Thank you for bringing this up.

Rocketship XM

Re: Steve Baxman. The man is selfless and I think we should erect a statue to him and all volunteer firefighters in each river community. Seriously? Yes. Seriously. Re: the homeless. Positive thoughts in the article. But maybe you did not bore down deep enough? It is my recollection that during Reagan's tenure he discontinued federal funding for mental health facilities which essentially closed them down over time, nationwide. This was a HUGE mistake, and since Reagan was a compassionate man I will attribute this error to influential but not-so-smart aides. No matter. Holding back federal funds cascaded uncountable souls needing mental help onto our streets. Thirty-plus years later we have a homeless crisis probably unparalleled since the Great Depression. So, from the time that Reagan made this error (in my non-expert opinion) we have had thirty years to make some corrections and maybe even get a handle on, or even eliminate, homelessness. Countless administrations at all governmental levels have had decades to make positive change, and/or stay in control. However, in many cases official decisions about how to deal with homeless, mostly in left-wing run constituencies have all but funded the continuation of homelessness. God forbid we require the homeless to do anything that might upset them. So what gives? Why can't all our elected wizards at the national, state and local levels get a handle on homelessness? Do they need a century to get results? Fair questions. Maybe climate change is holding them back?

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