The structure fires have engulfed one building after another in this town by the Russian River, and the toll this month — three homes heavily damaged, a health center and shuttered inn charred by arson — has led some residents here to say the blazes are an outgrowth, if not a direct result, of what they call an increasing threat to public safety and property posed by the area’s homeless population.
While investigators are still at work in the aftermath of the fires, some business owners and residents have gone so far as to blame homeless people for several of the incidents.
Their suspicions come as fire officials confirmed Tuesday that at least two of the five blazes — those at the Russian River Health Center and New Dynamic Inn — were intentionally set. Officials said those fires were not meant to warm people without shelter, a suspicion raised especially in the aftermath of Saturday’s health center blaze, which gutted a heavily used clinic for the river area.
Still, the losses, which haven’t resulted in any injuries or deaths, have traumatized many in this community and tourist destination of more than 1,000 residents, leaving some to point their finger at homeless residents.
“We’ve been too compassionate and it’s gotten out of hand,” said Suzy Kuhr, who owns Andorno’s Pizza in front of the downtown plaza.
Her pizzeria backs up to a wooded area near the historic Guerneville Bridge where, she said, she often finds homeless people drinking and setting campfires underneath — a major concern for nearby businesses.
“There is a chance of our building catching on fire,” said Kuhr, who has been patrolling more frequently the area around her property, looking for fire pits or anything suspicious since the recent blazes.
“I’ve always kept an eye out. Now, we’re being vigilant,” Kuhr said. “We’re at the end of our rope.”
Some have aired their fear, anger and concerns about the homeless on comment boards and social media sites, including Facebook.
Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he’s also received about a dozen emails from constituents since the weekend about the fires and fears about the homeless.
He said the community has the right to be concerned over the fires, but suggesting — as some have — to bus the homeless out of town is not an appropriate response. There are an estimated 241 homeless people in west Sonoma County, many of them concentrated in Guerneville.
“It is unfortunate that some community members are already casting blame on a segment of the community that is very vulnerable,” Carrillo said. “It doesn’t resemble the larger lower Russian River community, one that is tolerant.”
Carrillo and other local officials and organizations plan to hold a town hall meeting in the coming days to address questions about the fires.
On Tuesday, fire officials said they have not identified any suspects or motive for the blazes that destroyed the health clinic and the inn, which are about a block apart.
Homeless advocates say those living on the streets are being unfairly targeted as fear and frustration grows in the community and residents look for someone to hold responsible for the fires. They urged residents to wait for fire officials to complete their investigations.
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“We have to wait and see,” said Ernesto Garay, a St. Joseph Health community organizer who has been working with the area’s homeless population for two years.
Russian River Fire Capt. Rob Cassady, who is leading the investigation into the fires, said there is no evidence to indicate or rule out that homeless people are responsible for the fires at the inn and health center.
“It’s not fair to say it is the homeless,” he said.
“The health center services the homeless,” Cassady added. “Why burn one of their own services? It doesn’t make sense.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Jason Wright, who volunteers at the Mill Street Thrift Store around the corner from the health center and is staying at the temporary shelter at the Guerneville Veterans Memorial Hall.
“We would never do that. We all used that clinic,” he said about homeless men and women in the area.
Wright, who likes to draw, said he was devastated when he stopped by the health center after Saturday’s fire and decided to sketch what was left of the two-story building. The elevator shaft and breezeway were charred. Much of the roof was gone.
The blaze was lit in a utility closet that contained recycle bins and medical waste, according to fire officials.
While standing at the scene, Wright, 36, said he overheard people make comments about how someone in the homeless community was surely responsible. Other bystanders said that the town was being overrun by homeless, he said.
“I was scared. I’m in that category,” said Wright, adding that some people have been taking pictures and video of the homeless in the area and revving their car engines to taunt them. “It was too quick to judge.”
Debra Johnson, president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said the inn was being renovated to provide housing for homeless veterans.
Officials: Health center fire in Guerneville was arson
Tensions between residents and the homeless have long existed in the community, according to advocates.
The visible presence and number of homeless in the downtown have been a source of contention for years, said Garay, the St. Joseph Health organizer.
Some merchants “feel the homeless people are a nuisance. They linger around the businesses and (owners say) they scare off tourists,” Garay said.
When his agency decided to partner with Sonoma County Vet Connect and other organizations to provide showers for the homeless at Veterans Hall, he said there was resistance in the community. He said he saw similar blowback when county officials recently started to explore locations for a year-round homeless shelter and daytime drop-in center. Some residents feared those kinds of services would invite more homeless people to the area, he said.
The fires have spawned a widening range of rumors about who might be responsible and what motives they might have, said Ted Fox, a longtime Guerneville resident and volunteer with Russian River Health Center’s homeless outreach program.
“Oh, God. There are so many conspiracy theories out there,” Fox said.
He said some believe there is a fire bug among the homeless community, while others have claim to have seen a convicted arsonist in town and believe he set the blazes. That man, Steven Barton Edmonds, who was found to have burned down an iconic Sebastopol feed store, is serving a four-year prison sentence.
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Others feared someone was out to attack places that provide services to the homeless.
“The fire at the health center, it’s caused a lot of anxiety,” Fox said. It hit a “nerve” in the community because so many people depend on the medical providers there.
While the rumors are rampant, Fox urged residents not to jump to conclusions.
“There are a lot of crazy people out there that do crazy things,” he said. However, it doesn’t mean those “crazy” people are part of the local homeless community, he said.
“Everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” Fox said.
Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce president, said many in the community continue to work diligently on providing services and solutions to reduce the area’s homeless population.
Also, since June, the chamber has been using money from the county to have a security officer patrol the streets, Johnson noted. The officer previously patrolled the downtown area during the daytime. Because of the fires, though, he’ll be patrolling the streets during the nighttime, she said.
“We’re going to do that for a while until we figure out what’s going on with these fires,” she said.
Fire officials also urged residents be vigilant but remain calm as they continue their investigations.
“I don’t want that paranoia, I just want people to have a heightened awareness and pay attention to what’s going on around them,” Cassady said.