A number of fires relating to homeless encampments have added to the burden of Ceres firefighters in recent weeks.
The most recent fire occurred Saturday at approximately 3:15 p.m. when Ceres Fire was dispatched to a vegetation fire in a homeless camp along the railroad tracks west of Highway 99 and north of Service Road. The fire took off on debris and dry grass before spreading into the yard of Try-Us Transportation and burning a 53-foot trailer.
Transient Cecslia Fregoso, 42, was arrested and charged with arson in connection with the fire, which is being investigated by the Stanislaus Regional Fire Investigation Unit.
Community Service Officer David McCann saw Fregoso putting items on the fire to make it grow. When Officer Eric Souza found her walking along the tracks and ordered her to come over, she picked up a tree branch and threw it toward him. He tried to get Fregoso to comply and drew his Taser while issuing more commands. She picked up a metal pipe and threw it at Officer Souza, this time striking him. Officer Souza deployed his Taser and was able to subdue her. She was medically treated and booked into the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center.
Cecslia faces charges of Arson and obstructing and resisting arrest.
Ceres Fire dispatched two engines to the fire along with a grass rig from Hughson.
“There are a handful of small camps that start where Moffet and Don Pedro meet and then it runs south along the railroad tracks towards the Service Road overpass,” said Ceres Fire Department Captain Joseph Spani. “You can see them from the freeway. I believe there’s four or five different ones and I believe it consumed one of the camps.”
On Monday afternoon, May 3 a fire consumed a motorhome parked in the area of Janopaul Avenue in south Modesto which was attended to by Ceres and Modesto firefighters at 4:15 p.m. Firefighters made quick work of putting out the fire, which threatened a nearby RV. Debris and belongings of the homeless family were also consumed by the blaze.
Spani said the industrial area along Janopaul Avenue is heavily used by homeless persons who are encroaching on railroad property. The area is in the unincorporated of the county but Ceres Fire is contracted by Industrial Fire Protection District to respond to fires there.
On April 13 two motorhomes used by homeless families were completely destroyed in a fire also along the tracks at Janopaul and Sonora Avenue.
Spani reported that within the past few weeks the department put out fires in the oleanders separating the northbound lanes of Highway 99 and the frontage road between Whitmore Avenue and Hatch Road. He suspected the fires were related to the activities of homeless persons.
Earlier this year a homeless camp along the railroad tracks caught on fire near the Penske rental yard, burning debris as well as a tree in the location.
Statewide firefighters have been called to fight fires in encampments. In March a propane tank exploded in an Oakland homeless camp. In April Sonora Fire dealt with two fires in a place called Camp Hope where an RV was destroyed. Sonora Fire Chief Aimee New told the Sonora Union Democrat: “I have huge concerns about the homeless encampments because they have no regard for anyone but themselves. It’s only a matter of time before the temperature is high enough, humidity is low enough, and fuels are dry enough that a fire will take out the city and part of the county.”
Sonora’s City Administrator Mary Rose Rutikanga has been urging Caltrans to eradicate encampments across from Camp Hope, but current state regulations prevent the agency from moving people out of homeless camps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An estimated 2,107 people live in Stanislaus County according to the 2020 point-in-time count, up from 1,900 in 2019. Three years ago the homeless count was 1,356.
The homeless population in California is estimated at 161,548 as of January 2020. That is the highest in the nation with 27 percent of the nation’s homeless living in California alone.