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Paso says Salinas Riverbed is a public safety emergency 

The Paso Robles City Council approved on July 16 a proclamation deeming the Salinas Riverbed and its surrounding area a local public health and safety emergency.

Paso Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta proposed the proclamation and said a mitigation plan will rid the bed of brush and debris that pose a fire hazard and will remove the homeless population that adds to the fire risk.

"This truly is an imminent threat to public health and safety, with that I believe we can do this," Stornetta said.

click to enlarge SMOKE ON THE WATER A June 10 fire in the Salinas Riverbed burned 3 acres behind Kohls in Paso Robles. - SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF THE CITY OF PASO ROBLES
  • Screenshot Courtesy Of The City Of Paso Robles
  • SMOKE ON THE WATER A June 10 fire in the Salinas Riverbed burned 3 acres behind Kohls in Paso Robles.

The riverbed encompasses more than 680 acres, much of it heavily forested. According to a staff report, the brush and dead branches provide a significant source of fuel that local entities haven't been able to address by the city's annual weed abatement activities, due to restrictive state regulations.

The mitigation plan will cost the city $361,600.

It proposes three phases of dealing with the material from the riverbed: hiring one sergeant and two police officer positions to assist in the cleanup; enacting a community action team; and retaining a biologist to conduct a habitat assessment of the project area.

The goal of the project is to create a roughly 150-foot buffer from the roadway along South and North River Road. According to the report, the buffer will help minimize the fire intensity along the roadway.

The proclamation comes on the heels of a June 10 fire in the riverbed, which shut down Niblick Bridge for more than an hour.

The Salinas Riverbed dissects the city, and there are three major transportation routes that cross the riverbed in the city: Niblick Bridge, 13th Street, and the Highway 46 bridge.

Stornetta said the neighboring community east of the river is at greatest risk of fire escaping the riverbed.

According to the staff report, the large number of homeless people living in the riverbed is a common source of ignitions.

"Most fires in any community are human caused, and Paso Robles is no exception. To date, 37 fires have already occurred in the riverbed," the report states.

In 2018, 115 fires occurred in the riverbed, and many of the fires remained isolated within the homeless encampments or islands within the riverbed.

Mayor Steve Martin said he's always been a champion of alleviating human suffering and will continue to do that.

"But I may have the right to walk the streets of Paso Robles. I do not have the right to walk the streets of Paso Robles and start fires. I may have the right to walk the streets of Paso Robles. I don't have the right to pollute the landscape," Martin said. "The fact that you're homeless doesn't relieve you of the responsibility that you have to your fellow human beings."

Stornetta said the project is slated to begin after the Mid-State Fair, as the department's personnel is currently focused on that event.

City Councilman John Hamon did not vote in favor of the proclamation because he said he didn't believe reserve tax dollars are going to solve this homeless issue in the riverbed.

"We need to make policies here that make the riverbed an unattractive place to the homeless within the law," Hamon said. Δ

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