LAFAYETTE -- The latest illegal fire at the Lafayette Community Park has officials reviewing policy and residents demanding action.
That July 14 blaze destroyed a tree, its charred remains later discarded by city staffers into an endangered frog habitat in Las Trampas Creek.
"It's upsetting to me," said Lafayette Parks, Trails & Recreation director Jennifer Russell as she peered over the edge of a cliff that looms more than 30 feet above the creek bed. She was getting her first look at the hunks of singed wood and what appeared to be freshly cut limbs from the towering buckeye that lay on the creek bed near a pool of water.
Contra Costa Fire Protection District inspector Robert Marshall said the early morning fire took crews an hour to extinguish. Once it was out, the tree's remains -- including the pieces fire crews cut to fight the fire -- were left for park maintenance to handle.
Russell said the city's policy is to leave fallen limbs alone so they can decompose naturally. But a maintenance worker decided to rid the area of any evidence of a fire pit and dispersed the logs where he thought they would break down. They ended up in the creek bed, which is home to the endangered Red Legged Frog.
"He realized it wasn't the best thing to do," Russell said.
So did residents, including one who stopped workers from trying haul the debris out of the creek a few days after the fire. One called the Regional Water Quality
Others took officials to task at a July 23 city council meeting. They complained about trash and illegal fires that have been on the rise, and said park workers had failed to clean up the fire pits. One resident told city leaders she's concerned about the lack of public notice about the July 14 fire, and another blasted officials for what she characterized as a laissez-faire approach to the park, including a lack of information about how many fires have been set, the illegal dumping of the tree by park staff and a lack of response to kids "acting out."
Lafayette police Chief Eric Christensen said his department is aware of habitual partying in the park, including the grove where the buckeye burned. He said police are conducting evening helicopter patrols to search for young people so involved.
But Christensen stressed that parents need to make sure they know what their children are up to, because they will be liable if something happens.
Despite signs at the entrance stating the park's hours -- dawn to dusk -- and rules prohibiting drinking and smoking, people continue to gather during closed hours and light bonfires, a problem Russell said the city inherited when it acquired the 68-acre park from Caltrans in the mid-1980s. In response to the recent blaze, staffers have posted bright orange signs warning people that setting fires is illegal; one is stapled to a buckeye tree near the burn site.
As for the environmental issues, Russell said the city is waiting for a biologist's assessment of the creek's health and for a report on mitigating the debris.
"It's got to come out," she said.