An intense discussion had just gotten under way, focused on how best to remove people living illegally in the Ventura River bottom.
The logistics of getting them and their belongings out, the potential impacts to the community, where they would go: All of these things needed to be hashed out.
But the end goal was clear.
"Permanent camps will be permanently removed," Peter Brown, the city's community services manager, said during Wednesday's monthly meeting of the Ventura Social Services Task Force.
Ventura police Cmdr. Mark Stadler sat on the outskirts listening, before walking out to take a phone call. Moments later, he returned.
"Another fire in the river bottom," he announced, at Highway 33 and Stanley.
The report was one of several in recent days along the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers. Although Stadler's information would turn out to be a false alarm, another brush fire had hit the river bottom earlier Wednesday.
According to emergency personnel and city officials, all were caused by human activity. They ruled out lightning, and no utilities were nearby.
Fire officials stopped short of calling the blazes arson — which carries with it malicious intent — but authorities are investigating the activity as criminal.
On Wednesday afternoon, a helicopter from the Ventura County sheriff's air unit began a flyover searching for a potential arsonist.
"Unfortunately, they didn't find anyone," Ventura police Cmdr. Juan Reynoso said.
The rash of brush fires began Sunday afternoon, when one was reported in the riverbed below Highway 101 near Highway 33. On Monday night, a quarter-acre fire broke out in the Santa Clara River bottom, causing train service throughout the area to be suspended.
On Tuesday, it was back to the Ventura River, for a spot fire near southbound Highway 33 and Shell Road. The next day, a fire took out about 200 square feet of heavy brush near West Main Street and Highway 33.
To Brown, the fires signal a homeless community displeased with signs being posted throughout the area that say in part, "Illegal camps in the Ventura River will be dismantled."
At the same time, cleanup of the non-native arundo reed has meant fewer places to hide in the brush along the river. More people have been pressed together in the dwindling space, sparking tensions not unlike those in typical urban centers, Brown said.
Reynoso agreed conflicts between camps could be behind the fires.
Those familiar with the dynamic along the river bottom say there are warring factions. There is a band of bike thieves, another that makes money off stealing and reselling copper, and can and bottle collectors police consider the most "legitimate" group, Reynoso said. Clashes seem inevitable, they say.
Rumors have flown over the cause of the fires, but Reynoso said people who live along the river are careful to set cooking or heating fires away from their camps. The fires do not appear to be starting in a way that suggests errant campfires, he said.
Over the years, the city, county and private property owners along the Ventura River have sought to remove illegal camps. The effort has yet to yield any permanent results.
Like those, the current effort is fraught with challenges, the most glaring of which is where the people will go.
"We'd be foolish to think we're not going to have an impact on west side and downtown," Brown said. "The question is: What then? I'm not sure we have an answer."
What it doesn't mean, though, is that all the people will end up staying in Ventura, he said.
Later this month, the city will distribute bags designed to hold any possessions river dwellers want to keep and store them for at least 90 days, Brown said.
On Sept. 4, roughly 600 California Lutheran University students will participate in a river bottom trash cleanup that has become an annual tradition. A few weeks later, the county will resume removal of the bamboo-like arundo (removal is banned during bird mating season), and the city will begin removing the first of the illegal encampments, one section at a time.
Brown said the effort can't wait because of the environmental degradation the camps cause. The city faces significant fines if water quality doesn't meet certain targets.
In late 2004, the city created Camp Hope to house illegal campers, who were being evacuated because of flooding predicted that winter. The camp was at the National Guard Armory and provided meals, shelter and showers. Camp Hope bridged the gap between when the evacuation took place and when a winter warming shelter opened at the armory.
It also led to the formation of River Haven, a tent camp near Ventura Harbor hailed as a success because it provides a cheap place to stay for those who can't afford permanent housing. Brown said there are a handful of spots available there for people willing to follow the camp's rules and conditions — drugs and alcohol, for example, are forbidden.
Turning Point Executive Director Clyde Reynolds, who has worked with the homeless population for decades, sits on the Ventura County Social Services Task Force. Reynolds questioned how prepared the city is for the influx of people who will be uprooted from the river. Unlike 2004, there is no interim place for them to go, he said.
"Some of us would prefer to do this in a more planned way," Reynolds said. "It's moving way ahead of our abilities to create a response."
The city, Ventura outdoor apparel company Patagonia and other businesses are exploring the possibility of joining the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which targets and attempts to house the most vulnerable. Locally, Turning Point, the Salvation Army and Project Understanding have had success with Homeless 2 Home, placing 52 people since it started last year.
"The numbers are much greater than even I would have estimated," Reynolds said. "We need resources to build on that."
The Ventura Salvation Army's director of social services, Rob Orth, also a member of the Social Services Task Force, is chairing a committee formed to study the issue of where river dwellers will go. The group will meet next week to try to determine immediate options."It won't be perfect, but nothing's going to be perfect," Orth said.
The increase in fires might actually help the effort, because they clearly demonstrate the adverse impacts of people dwelling at the river.
"Pressure tends to move things," Orth said.
The situation has the potential to yield "political leverage if there are more people in the streets," Orth said. "I don't know, but we're about to find out."