Caltrans installs fencing near former homeless encampments in Tuolumne County | News

Workers contracted by Caltrans District 10 installed sections of 7-foot-high steel security fencing Thursday next to the eastbound off-ramp from Highway 108 to Stockton Road, in one of the locations where Caltrans and the City of Sonora took measures to close homeless encampments south of downtown Sonora in July.

The workers, with All Steel Fence of Lathrop, said they have installed the same type of fencing at other locations in the Sonora area and along Highway 108, including behind Lowe’s and Walmart on Sanguinetti Road.

Fencing manufacturers describe the type of fencing being installed at Highway 108 and Stockton Road as “curved spear top steel fence,” and “anti-climb security fence,” which are often marketed as “crowd control barriers.”

Security fencing work in Tuolumne County is part of a multi-county effort that began five months ago and includes similar fencing and other safety barriers in Calaveras, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties, Rick Brewer, a spokesman for Caltrans District 10, said Thursday afternoon.

The need for security fencing was part of an emergency order from Caltrans Director Tony Tavares, Brewer said. The projects are meant to protect people and natural resources.

Caltrans conferred with the City of Sonora government on the fencing project and on what type of fencing would be appropriate, City Administrator Melissa Eads said Thursday afternoon in a phone interview.

Eads said she is aware of new Caltrans fencing going in at three locations: the Highway 108 overpass at Stockton Road where workers installed fence Thursday; along Hwy 108 behind Walmart; and at the old Caltrans maintenance yard property at Mono Way and Greenley Road, which is still owned by the state. All three locations were known homeless encampments before Caltrans and the City of Sonora cracked down on the camps.

Caltrans cleared its former maintenance yard in September 2021. Caltrans and the City of Sonora closed camps on Stockton Road, at Highway 108 and Stockton Road, and off Wigwam Road in July 2022.

City of Sonora staff said six months ago they were assisting Caltrans in coordination of support services for the closure of three encampments of unsheltered individuals due to safety concerns including fire risk and excessive trash and debris.

All of the areas Caltrans is fencing are designated high fire hazard severity zones, and no camping whatsoever is allowed in high fire hazard severity zones, Eads said Thursday.

“We’re aware of the projects, they made us aware of their work,” Eads said Thursday. “We’re happy they did include us early on for the type of fencing. They did reach out to us about the fencing. We wanted something that blended well with the landscape, the black, wrought-iron fencing.”

Fencing city property is appropriate when a property is supposed to be closed to the public, Eads said. When the City of Sonora has a property that is not open to the public, the city will put fencing around that property for public safety and security, she explained.

Fires at or near homeless camps have been big news in recent years.

In early September, the Woods Fire blew up overnight, burned about 21 acres, damaged one structure and destroyed one structure, and scared residents in the same hillside neighborhood where the Washington Fire broke out in late August 2021. No injuries and no fatalities were reported in the Woods Fire.

Cal Fire has yet to publicly announce the cause of the Woods Fire.

Seventeen months ago, the Washington Fire destroyed at least 19 structures including the homes of at least 10 families, and cost more than $1.5 million to put out. No injuries and no fatalities were reported in the Washington Fire, though the body of a man was discovered in the burn scar. The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office later identified the deceased as a Sonora man reported missing several months before the blaze.

Cal Fire said the cause of the Washington Fire was “accidental in nature.” Both fires broke out near the former homeless camp known as Camp Hope.

Other fires have been reported at other homeless camps, including one on the other side of Stockton Road investigated in July 2022 by Sonora Police.

“It’s a risk the City of Sonora takes seriously,” Eads said of the potential for fires at homeless encampments and former camps. “It really has to come down to this. We have to make sure these properties are safe for the community and everyone else.”

In July, before the City Council voted on new laws and an encampment policy, Eads said the most recent survey of homeless individuals in Tuolumne County counted 266 unsheltered people, with about half of them estimated to be living outdoors in parts of Sonora.

Eads said at the time that the city had approximately 50% of the county’s chronic homeless individuals, and that nearly 25% of calls to Sonora police were “somewhat related to homelessness.”

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