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Embankment fire started in encampment along 120 Bypass is public safety concern
homeless fire
Homeless have an encampment along the 120 Bypass east of Moffat Boulevard where a grass fire was started on Wednesday.

One would think if you have dozens of homeless people living in what is Manteca’s most notorious area for grass fires that it might not be a good idea to let them stay there once high weeds turn dry.

But then again Caltrans district workers nor or Manteca Police allowed to take local conditions into account under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 pandemic order.

The directive from Sacramento is clear when it comes to illegal homeless encampments on public property during the pandemic — don’t roust them as it may spread the coronavirus. In other words the state’s stay-at-home order means the homeless don’t have to be worried for the time being about pulling up stakes every few weeks or so.

So the inevitable happened Wednesday around 1 p.m. on the steep embankment on the south side of the 120 Bypass between Moffat Boulevard and the transition to southbound Highway 99 — a fire started by a homeless person got out of control.

Just so no one automatically thinks homeless people are pyromaniacs it could have been from smoking a cigarette or something else or even a cooking fire.

The wind drove the fire over 1,500 feet of dried weeds to create a visibility problem for eastbound Bypass traffic. (As a historic aside as to why this is a life and death situation, 18 years ago an elderly woman died when her husband drove into heavy smoke, became disorientated, and drove off the freeway into a grass fire  on the southeast quadrant of the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 where she ended up dying.)

Responding firefighters from the City of Manteca and Lathrop Manteca Fire District were advised that persons living in the encampment may be trapped. Fortunately that was not the case.

But consider where they are living. They are between a steep embankment and a 6-foot masonry sound wall that is designed to be difficult to scale. They are living in makeshift shelter made from combustible materials surrounded by a lot of stuff we would view as trash that are hidden from view of Moffat Boulevard traffic by a “wall” of tumbleweeds that can burst into flames quicker than a dried out Christmas tree. That leaves only two ways out which might by a little dicey in a fast moving fire.

There is also the little detail that the prevailing winds usually blow from the Delta which means most fires along the Bypass started by tossed cigarettes, firebugs or accidents would move quickly downhill toward the encampments.

And how can we forget about accidents over the years where cars — rear-ending stopped vehicles — have gone off the freeway and down the embankment. There was even a truck trailer that flipped one time and landed on Van Ryn Avenue below. It is why Caltrans barricaded the section north of Van Ryn Avenue behind Paseo Villas Apartments.

Caltrans pre-pandemic working with Manteca Police would periodically come through and clear out encampments given it is state property and not under city control. By now they would have also addressed weeds after removing encampments. Weed abatement where the homeless are now encamped may not be possible until well into October as it would violate Newsom’s order regarding rousting the homeless from illegal encampments during the pandemic.

And let’s not forget nervous property owners on the south side of the sound wall that got to enjoy Manteca’s most destructive fire in at least 45 years when apartment buildings under construction went up in flames.

One would think the homeless would be safer anywhere else including illegally camping on the north side of the Bypass.

Newsom with his one-size-fits all top down edict prevents local officials from deviating from the order. That means Sacramento has pre-determined potentially spreading the COVID-19 virus in this case trumps well established concerns about homeless suffering burns or dying in a fire by being allowed to enjoy an extended stay during the pandemic emergency living in an outdoor fire trap.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email