How Riverside hopes to protect homes near Santa Ana River from fires

How Riverside hopes to protect homes near Santa Ana River from fires

A pattern of blazes sparks a massive city project to clear 12 acres of brush near Fairmount Park.

Riverside resident Chani Beeman has watched with alarm more than once as fires in the Santa Ana River bottom near Fairmount Park moved dangerously close to her neighborhood.

“You get these palm trees on fire, they’re waving like torches,” she said. “It’s pretty frightening.”

A growing number of fires in the area in recent years and the growth of dense vegetation – some creeping right next to homes in the Bubbling Wells neighborhood – have led Riverside officials to take a big step to boost safety.

Last week, city crews, accompanied by bulldozers and trash haulers, cut through a thick swath of dense brush along the park, clearing a 500-foot-wide break over 12 acres. The break also has a dirt path public safety vehicles can use more easily.

Workers from public works, the fire and park and recreation departments cleared material that included nonnative vegetation such as palm trees – which can be a danger if embers catch onto fronds – and Indian tobacco brush, Riverside fire Batallion Chief Bruce Vanderhorst said.

Also removed were non-native grasses, grapevines, brush and low-hanging tree branches as well as trash and debris.

“Eventually, we’d like to see through these trees,” Vanderhorst said. “For a healthy forest, you’re supposed to be able to see a quarter mile in.”

The thick vegetation presented a fire risk to nearby residents, homeless who camp there and firefighters responding to fires, Vanderhorst said.

Riverside City Councilman Mike Gardner, who represents the area, said parks crews usually clear about 10-15 feet of brush as part of their maintenance.

But it was the area’s first major cleanup. He’d like to see it done regularly.

“It’s going to provide good fire protection and long term it’s going to be better for the natural area and the habitat,” he said.

Gardner said he hopes the area near the river eventually will be restored to its natural wetlands habitat, with amenities such as a nature trail and an interpretive center.

Beeman, among the residents raising concerns, said she’s glad to see action. “It doesn’t take much on a windy day for there to be a real threat to our neighborhood,” she said.

Fires have broken out regularly in the area. For example, firefighters battled five fires in a less than a week in September. In October 2015, one blaze that started in the riverbed burned 24 acres.

Fires started in homeless encampments have been a problem, Vanderhorst said, but fire risk also arises from downed power lines and Santa Ana winds that quickly whip flames.

Mike Whitham, a city homeless services specialist, went out to meet homeless campers the day before the clearing to tell them of the project. Most had left by Wednesday morning, before crews arrived.

But signs of the encampments remained deep inside the dense brush: a hammock was strung between tree branches in one spot. A shopping cart and some clothes were strewn around the dirt in another.

Officials have offered the homeless information on the city’s shelter and other resources, Whitham said.

As crews toiled Wednesday morning, Stan Shannon, 88, a Bubbling Wells resident, stopped to take a look while walking his dog, Annie.

“It will look a lot nicer,” he said. “We did have a fire out in there, so we’re glad they’re going to clean it up.”

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