As a summertime fire in the woods behind Raley's near Stateline illustrated, homeless camps on the South Shore pose a serious fire hazard.
Although that particular fire burned only a quarter acre, with the dry conditions even a small fire has the potential to burn out of control.
Each year, the U.S. Forest Service responds to about 20 fires started at these impromptu camps, making up 15 percent to 20 percent of the total number of fires that the Forest Service puts out, according to Fuels Battalion Chief John Washington.
Sweeps of area forests are conducted by local agencies as well as the U.S. Forest Service.
The Douglas County Sheriff's Department conducted a sweep of the Nevada side of the forest behind Raley's following the fire on July 30. The Douglas County sweeps consist of four to six investigators picking a day for the sweep, and then conducting it, usually in the woods behind MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa, said Douglas County Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Mezzetta.
Douglas County has an ordinance against illegal camping covering all of the Lake Tahoe Basin down to the Carson Valley - an ordinance that was drafted to combat the fire hazard the camps pose, Mezzetta said.
Camping illegally is a misdemeanor offense, although Mezzetta said most offenders aren't cited but rather educated about the law and fire hazards then made to leave.
The South Lake Tahoe Police Department has conducted sweeps in the past, usually once a year, according to Lt. David Stevenson. The sweeps are often multi-jurisdictional, involving the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, El Dorado County Sheriff's Department, the El Dorado County Probation Department and the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.
The South Lake Tahoe Police Department's main concerns are the areas behind Motel 6 near the "Y" and behind Raley's near Stateline. Also a concern is the area around Lake Tahoe Airport. Although the fire danger these camps pose is the biggest threat, there are also sanitation and health concerns, according to Stevenson.
"We don't want people living in the woods," Stevenson said.
Laura Clarke and Greg Knox, law enforcement officers for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, conduct regular sweeps of Forest Service land looking for illegal camps. Knox is a K9 handler, so the two will hike with the dog through areas thought to be likely to have homeless camps.
"Transients are living, not camping," Clarke said.
Clarke cited fire hazard as the No. 1 concern of the Forest Service in eliminating the camps, but said that camping in meadows and not properly disposing of human waste are other concerns raised by the illegal camps.
Many of the people they find, especially on the North Shore, are day laborers, said Clarke. They don't have anywhere else to stay, as there is no YMCA where a seasonal laborer can stay for several months, no homeless shelters or barracks in the area.
"I really feel for some of these people," Clarke said.
However, the Forest Service has to address the fire danger that these camps pose to the basin community.
It seems that until the surrounding communities provide alternatives for the homeless, the problem is going to persist.
"Using public lands for residence is not the answer," Clarke said.
This summer's devastating Angora fire is believed to have been caused by an illegal fire at a recreational campsite, and not by a homeless camp, said Clarke.
The Forest Service, while knowing certain areas to be especially likely to become home to illegal camps, relies heavily upon the public for information regarding the location of illegal campsites.
If you see or know of an illegal campsite, contact the USFS Camino dispatch at (530) 642-5170.