“I heard a man yell ‘Fire!'” said Sandra Brooks. “Fires are not allowed in the canyon.”
Brooks, like many of her surrounding neighbors, is concerned for the safety of their homes that sit above Manzanita Canyon. She’s been living in City Heights for almost 50 years; her parents purchased the house in the 1940s.
“I smell the campers cooking nightly, so I know they are burning fires down there,” she said.
On Sunday (June 25) at about 2 a.m., she was awoken by what sounded like a motorcycle or an ATV within 100 yards down the canyon from her bedroom window. She called the non-emergency line but no one answered. After she hung up, she heard a man say “Fire! Let’s knock this out before we go home.”
“There is an active homeless camp down there, it is a chronic problem,” Brooks said, “I would address this situation as a very serious epidemic, which is overwhelming city officials, police, fire and volunteer workers alike.” She added she didn’t see the police or the fire department show up that morning.
One of the Brooks’ neighbors walked down the canyon when the sun came up, took photos of the encampment, and posted about 10 photos on her social media. There was charred wood and other burnt remnants, an abandoned tent, a bunch of trash – and vintage 1980s Nintendo and Sega Genesis video game controllers (not burned). “How long are we going to tolerate the damage these people cause to our properties and to our peace of mind,” she said.
“Law enforcement typically reacts slowly to requests for encampment removal,” said Bruce Thompson, 62. “The laws need to be changed so that illegal activity that puts communities at serious risk results in more than a ‘slap on the wrist.'”
Monica Muñoz from the Fire-Rescue Department of the city of San Diego said that fires in canyons and open fields are not permitted. “It’s never advisable to have fires in canyons especially now when the brush is extremely dry and plentiful.”
Erick Salgado, a 31-year-old realtor, wholeheartedly agrees with Muñoz and Brooks. He lives on the north side of Manzanita Canyon and walks through the trails with his wife, child, and dog. “It is not uncommon to be walking through the canyon and see evidence of a small cooking fire,” he said, “I’ve seen small fire sites like this regularly.”
Last year, although, Salgado and his family witnessed something more along the lines of a "malicious fire” as they hiked the canyon. He said that after they passed a makeshift memorial for “Scotty,” a person that allegedly died from an overdose in the canyon; he saw a fire that was freshly ignited by “the driest brush in the area.” As they approached the scene, the smoke turned into a fire, they then heard people scurry away (but did not see them).
“I had my wife run home and call 911 [because] neither of us had our cell phones on us at the time,” he said, “I yelled ‘fire’ and a neighbor from the the rim of the canyon saw me and called.” He then took the initiative, and stomped the fire out with his black Adidas sneakers.
Salgado said that “it felt like forever” for the San Diego Fire Department to come in. They parked their fire truck at Jamie Way, then Salgado’s wife escorted the five fireman to the scene. “We had a bit of a heated discussion about what appeared to be a lack of urgency and blasé attitude about a fire that, in my mind; nearly killed us all,” he said.
Brooks has her share of close-calls too. “I can tell you I have seen some pretty scary fires,” she said, “the last [big] fire I remember was a couple of years ago, when the big water drop helicopter was called [and] it was in the same general area (as the recent weekend fire), just on the opposite rim,” she said. “That particular fire was arson.”
Salgado wanted the firemen to investigate the scene he stomped out, because of what he heard and saw (a magazine and a lighter at the fire-scene), but he said that the SDFD refused to and responded “you basically have to catch the person in the act.”
The Manzanita Canyon was the pilot canyon that helped start the San Diego Canyonlands project in 2009. Their website states that the project was created to promote, protect and restore the natural habitats in San Diego County canyons and creeks by fostering education and ongoing community involvement in stewardship and advocacy, and by collaborating with other organizations.