Zaheer Brooks, left, and Amber McCoy are shown at their campsite near the San Diego River, Aug. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

As San Diego’s homelessness crisis continues to be a flash point, politicians are citing data and growing complaints from residents to usher in controversial policy changes. That’s despite research that shows criminalizing homelessness can perpetuate the problem and increase the cost to taxpayers.

For weeks, top San Diego officials harped on unhoused people who set fires in canyons, parks and riverbeds as a strategy to drum up support for a controversial camping ban. 

Staff said before the vote encampments cause fires that threaten homes and lives, pointing to a dramatic spike in the number of “likely homeless vegetation fires” and reminding elected leaders that two of the largest wildfires in the last 20 years were here in San Diego County.

But in reality, fire officials don’t really know how many fires are started by encampments. And people experiencing homelessness had nothing to do with those two wildfires. 

In their push for a camping ban, city leaders also did not mention what would be revealed in an internal audit only weeks later: The city wasn’t doing its own job of removing brush to help prevent fires, potentially putting homes and lives at risk.

inewsource found city staff used misleading data and anecdotes to build a case about the risk of fires started by encampments, one of the core reasons some elected leaders said a ban was necessary. Of the 430 brush fires “likely” started by unhoused residents last year, San Diego Fire-Rescue officials acknowledged they’re not certain how many of them actually came from an encampment. 

It’s the number of times someone — either a 911 caller or a fire official — mentioned a homeless encampment when reporting a fire, not the number of fires caused by encampments. These fires aren’t typically investigated, so the true number is unknown, Fire-Rescue spokesperson Mónica Muñoz said.

“There’s never been a large-scale fire within the city of San Diego that was caused by a homeless encampment, ever,” said Muñoz, who has worked for the city for more than three decades. “These fires tend to be very small and tend to not do any damage to structures.”

As inewsource previously reported, City Auditor Andy Hanau’s office found San Diego falls short in properly managing brush removal efforts on public lands as required by law. The audit said the city’s “inconsistent and potentially ineffective” efforts persist even as climate change, drought conditions and a buildup of dry vegetation have increased wildfire frequency and intensity.

It’s a lapse in oversight that officials were first warned about more than a decade ago.

Homes built along Switzer Canyon in San Diego are shown on November 1, 2019. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Still, elected leaders defended their use of the data and how it was presented.

Representatives for Mayor Todd Gloria, who championed the proposal and raised concerns about fire risks from encampments, did not respond to questions about the city’s failure to properly remove brush on public land. Instead, they defended city staff’s presentation and said the data source was accurately defined as dispatch data, or how the fires were reported to dispatch.

Gloria’s team also said the mayor, City Council and other officials all receive dozens of complaints from “people who live on canyons fearful about the fires they see in encampments igniting a major fire that threaten their homes and lives.”

“We should not wait for people to be killed or homes to be burned to take steps to prevent potentially deadly fires,” spokesperson Rachel Laing said in an email, “and one of those steps is discouraging unauthorized camping in fire-prone areas.”

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, who has been in the spotlight recently for ushering in the ban and backing off his commitment to quickly address vehicle impounds that hit low-income people the hardest, pushed back against inewsource’s reporting. 

Whitburn’s spokesperson and policy advisor, Bridget Naso, said they used the most reliable data source available for “likely homeless-related brush fires” — the fire department’s dispatch system. Staff was clear about the source, she said, “which reflects how calls are reported to the fire department.”

Many residents concerned about the danger posed by suspected encampment fires have contacted Whitburn’s office, Naso added. That includes several brush fires near the bridge over Texas Street in North Park, as well as dozens of calls about fires in Old Town’s Presidio Park.

Most of San Diego is considered a very high fire hazard area, and the risk is highest for about 40,000 homes and vacant lots that sit along canyon rims and slopes. And it’s true that fires linked to encampments have threatened homes

But for people like 33-year-old Amber McCoy, it comes down to survival — cooking food, staying warm and keeping flies away. 

Amber McCoy zips up a bag of ice at her campsite near the San Diego River, Aug. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

McCoy, who lives in a tent near the San Diego riverbed, said these fires don’t just get out of hand and start wildfires. People are vigilant, setting up rocks and wetting the ground around the fire, she said, and those living in an encampment hold each other accountable to protect the place they call home.

“A few of us have even played our own role as firefighters and gone out there and put out fires that people set,” McCoy said.

Some people looking to stir up trouble and cause damage have intentionally set fires near encampments, she acknowledged. “There’s always a few who mess it up for everyone else.”

McCoy said public officials and residents blame unhoused people because not many speak up on their behalf, and they’re often the last to find out about news or information that directly affects them.

“They choose us because we’re unvoiced in the public eye,” she said. 

‘It’s not true data’

Whitburn, with Gloria’s support, first proposed the camping ban in March. Their messaging revolved around the public health and safety risk caused by people living in encampments, including pollution, disease, car crashes, drug deaths and dangers to children on their way to school.

They also raised concerns about fires started by encampments, with the mayor holding several press conferences — one of which was in front of a La Jolla fire station — leading up to the vote, urging the City Council to pass the ban because of these risks. In the original proposal, officials used data that shows crews responding to more than 400 “suspected vegetation fires in open space” last year as evidence of the problem.

On the day of the City Council’s vote in June, staff presented a slide show that featured more than a dozen photos of encampments near a school, shelter, transit hub, waterway and other areas off the beaten path. Naso, Whitburn’s spokesperson and policy advisor, mentioned fire risks at least 18 times during the 25-minute presentation.

“Two of the largest wildfires in the last 20 years were here in San Diego,” Naso said. She also referenced two other “massive” fires that happened outside of the county.

Major wildfires referenced by city staff

Councilmember Whitburn’s office referenced four wildfires that had nothing to do with homeless encampments when presenting about fire dangers caused by encampments.

  • 2003: Cedar fire in San Diego County, caused by a signal fire.
  • 2007: Witch Creek fire in San Diego County, caused by a downed power line.
  • 2020: August Complex fire in Northern California, caused by lightning.
  • 2021: Dixie fire in Northern California, caused by a tree touching a power line.

Using data from San Diego Fire-Rescue, she referred to a dramatic increase in “likely” or “suspected” encampment vegetation fires, from 128 in 2018 up to 431 last year — a more than 200% increase over a five-year period. 

But Naso neglected to mention encampments had nothing to do with any of the four wildfires she referenced, and she didn’t say anything about what “likely” or “suspected” means. 

Fire-Rescue officials said the data that Whitburn’s office used is far from ironclad. 

The department doesn’t have a category for homeless-related fires in its tracking system, and instead relies on manual notes that are detailed in a database when an incident is reported. Firefighters may conclude a fire is likely coming from an encampment if they see cooking equipment or evidence of a campfire nearby, or if a 911 caller mentions an encampment or a person without housing when reporting the fire. 

“We’re very careful to say ‘likely’ because it could be something as simple as, ‘I saw some homeless people in the neighborhood,’ ” said Roger Fisher, a deputy fire chief who oversees the department’s Emergency Command and Data Center. “It isn’t an investigator coming in and saying, ‘Yes, this was definitively attributed (to an encampment).’ ”

Muñoz said Fire-Rescue conducted keyword searches related to encampments to fulfill a request for information from Whitburn’s office. It brought up the number of reports that mentioned an encampment, not the actual number of fires.

“So, when we say ‘likely,’ we mean that it’s not true data because we don’t investigate every single brush fire,” Muñoz said, “and often we never find out what causes these fires.”

If a “likely” encampment fire started by a roadway, it could just as easily have been caused by sparks coming off unmaintained vehicles, Muñoz added. On a windy day, it could have been started by a nearby, unrelated fire that traveled by embers. 

Muñoz said Fire-Rescue shared all of this context with Whitburn’s office when officials sent over the numbers, and the councilmember’s staff report accurately described the fires as “possible” or “suspected.” 

But Muñoz would not answer whether it was fair to use this data as evidence to pass an ordinance.

“We don’t have any control whatsoever over what elected officials say, and we don’t have the ability to suggest to them that they change their language,” she said. “What we do is provide them with the information we can provide them with.”

In an email, Naso asserted that the city’s staff report and presentation clearly referenced the data as fires “likely” related to encampments. The staff report includes a footnote that says the data is generated by keywords. And Naso defended the strategy to mention large-scale fires that had nothing to do with homeless encampments.

“The point of the reference to large fires in the presentation was to highlight that uncontrolled fires from any cause are a real concern in San Diego,” Naso said in the email, “as evidenced by the devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007.”

Naso also pointed out that inewsource published a story in 2020 using the same data. But that story provided necessary context in the fourth sentence, saying the data came from calls that mentioned people without housing — a detail that was left out of Naso’s presentation.

San Diego’s ‘increased fire hazards’

One month after the city’s campaign to link encampments with fires that threaten homes and lives, an internal audit revealed the city’s failure to remove vegetation from public property is putting land with a high chance of catching fire at risk. 

This type of fire prevention is called “brush management,” and the city has struggled to follow state and local laws that require public lands to be maintained. Without coordination among departments and no list of property that needs to be maintained, the audit found, the city was lacking comprehensive policies.

Homes alongside a canyon in San Diego’s University Heights neighborhood are shown on Aug. 9, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“This approach can potentially lead to increased fire hazards and risks to property damage and public safety,” the report said.

Climate change is creating a “pressing need” for the city to improve its “inconsistent and potentially ineffective” efforts, the report said.

City management did not dispute the audit’s findings, and instead said they were already working on improvements. Chief Operating Officer Eric Dargan wrote in his response to the report that officials are pursuing grant funding, working to create and refine maps and considering more staff to help oversee brush management.

If the city were keeping up with brush management as required, would it have reduced or mitigated the risk of fires “likely” caused by encampments? 

“Fires can never be completely eliminated from our existence,” Muñoz said. “City departments responsible for clearing and managing brush are working to mitigate as much risk as possible.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...

Crystal Niebla joined inewsource in June 2022 as an investigative reporter focused on infrastructure and government accountability in the San Diego region. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. At the Long Beach Post, Niebla served...