MONTEREY COUNTY — Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal spoke to King City Rotary during its Aug. 26 luncheon about how the Sheriff’s Office has dealt with such community issues as the recent fires, river littering and the Covid-19 pandemic reaching the county jail.
“It’s been a busy 2020 with the Covid pandemic and the fires,” Bernal said.
Inter-agency cooperation was key to responding to the Carmel and River fires, he noted, as his deputies dealt mostly with evacuation orders.
“If you’ve ever been along River Road … or Carmel Valley, there are so many side streets and so many homes,” Bernal said. “You have to get through as many of those as you can and notify the residents of fire and evacuations.”
A command post was set up the second day of the local fires, and the Sheriff’s Office had a commander assigned to that post. Bernal explained the large-scale evacuation orders for the Arroyo Seco region and the evacuation warning extending to Pine Canyon on Aug. 22 were based on worst-case-scenario weather events, which would have included dry lightning storms and 60 mph gusts.
“It’s amazing to see the work Cal Fire did on the steep ridges back there that makes it really tough to fight,” Bernal said about the firefighting effort. “We had 14 agencies from the Bay Area that came down and helped us with evacuations over the weekend.”
There were 11 local agencies that helped as well, he added.
“There’s so much territory to cover in Carmel Valley, and we couldn’t have done it without the cooperation with our local law enforcement agencies,” Bernal said.
In the end, an estimated 43,000 people were evacuated from 13,260 homes in both fires.
“A lot of times it looks scary and looks closer than what it is,” Bernal said. “We had quite the show on River Road.”
Bernal also reported the Sheriff’s Office has switched from 10-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. This seemingly small detail has allowed the office to assign additional deputies to the King City substation to increase deputy presence in South Monterey County. There had previously only been a day shift operating out of King City.
“When we changed from 10-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, that gave us more personnel to move down to King City,” Bernal said. “Now we have a full-time sub station.”
The staffing allows for both day and night shifts out of King City.
“We’re getting full coverage with deputies that are dedicated to South County,” Bernal said.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its ripples through society was the next portion of Bernal’s report. He explained people want to spend time with their families in recreational activities during the summer, but closure of facilities and parks due to Covid-19 meant some South Monterey County residents have found alternative, and sometimes illegal, ways to go about that recreation.
“One of our biggest issues is people gathering during the pandemic,” Bernal said.
Parking alongside the Salinas River in South Monterey County or the Arroyo Seco Green Bridge has become common practice among visitors wanting to use the waterways.
“The issues we face now is all the litter and all the garbage they leave behind,” Bernal said.
The litter was an environmental hazard, he said, as deputies have found barbecues, diapers, bottles, cans and other trash at Arroyo Seco.
“When our rains come this winter, all of that’s going to end up downstream in the Salinas River and possibly into the Monterey Bay,” Bernal said. “That’s the reason we focused a lot of enforcement.”
Cars parked illegally can also create a traffic hazard. Bernal connected clear roadways to the recent fires and said had there been a need for fire trucks to get through the Green Bridge back when the parking was at its worst, there would have been no way to get emergency vehicles through that area.
He said parking tickets for the Green Bridge were less than tickets to an amusement park, which is why the county worked to increase fines to $250.
In more direct outcome from Covid-19, Bernal commented on the pandemic reaching the Monterey County Jail, in Salinas, which is overseen by the Sheriff’s Office.
“The Covid outbreak entered our jail around June,” Bernal said. “We tested over the last two or three months, 1,405 inmates for Covid — 297 of those inmates came down with the Covid virus. Some of them came into the jail with the virus.”
Bernal explained when inmates enter the jail, they are medically screened during the booking process. Those found to be infected are quarantined for 10 days.
Of the infected inmates, Bernal said 248 recovered and there was need for some brief hospitalizations.
“Right now we have four active cases in the jail,” Bernal said.
The jail recently obtained state approval to open a section of an in-progress jail expansion to use for quarantine.
“Out of 430 employees at Sheriff’s Office, 22 of them tested positive and 18 of them have recovered,” Bernal said. “A lot of those were family members who came down with the virus and our employees then came down with the virus. Very few of them caught it while working.”
Bernal said first responders on a call have no idea who is infected and must wear personal protective equipment if they wish to reduce infections.
The sheriff also commented on the budget, with the pandemic impacting county revenue and budgeting, as well as increases to pay and workers’ compensation going up. He said the Sheriff’s Office has lost 22 unfunded positions.