Riverside County supervisors Tuesday endorsed the county fire department’s quest for funding to conduct environmental studies that would mark the start of efforts to clear excess vegetation and improve natural habitat along the Santa Ana River bottom to prevent wildfires.

“This will not only help reduce fire emergencies, but it will restore that waterway,” Board of Supervisors Chair Karen Spiegel said. “This is addressing fire safety in the river bottom. The Santa Ana touches all five cities that I represent in my district.”

The board’s unanimous vote signaled its support for the fire department’s grant search to pay for the environmental impact report.

“I have been fighting fires in Riverside County since 1986, and that includes multiple fires in the river bottom,” county fire Chief Bill Wieser said. “Fires in the river bottom are a nuisance. The county spends millions of dollars to combat this. The cities of Riverside, Corona and Murrieta come and fight these fires.”

Fire department administrators are seeking state or federal funds to cover the cost of what will likely be a series of months-long studies to meet requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Spiegel said the hope is for a “unified and dedicated group of organizations and individuals” to work collaboratively toward formulating a strategy, based on the future EIR, that slashes fire risks while enhancing recreational opportunities and protecting “the diverse species that call the river bottom home.”

The typically dry waterway is routinely plagued by brush fires, most of them ignited within or near homeless encampments, which spread into residential and commercial districts.

Some fires have led to destruction of property and injuries, as well as large-scale evacuations.

The city of Riverside has attempted to clear the encampments and find alternate housing for some of the transients, but they often move to other spaces nearby, or others take their place.

“Riverside County is pleased to be a part of this project and believe it is the first step in future fuels reduction projects, community improvements (and) water reclamation projects … for improving the resiliency of adjacent communities in the wildland urban interface,” Spiegel said in a statement posted to the board agenda.

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