By Elizabeth Klinge

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Sacramento’s American River Parkway gets more than five million visits a year—that’s even more than Yosemite—but this year, the nature area has suffered more destructive brush fires than ever before.

Parkway advocates came face to face with politicians, firefighters and those who manage the area to demand more protection.

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It has already been an unprecedented fire season along the parkway.

“Since May, 11 percent of the parkway has burned—that is the highest amount of the parkway that has ever burned,” said Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation.

It’s a sad sight for volunteers who help preserve the 23-mile long nature and recreation area.

“Every time I see a column of smoke, it just breaks my heart. It just kills me because I know it’s displacing a lot of animals and it’s damaging the environment,” said parkway volunteer Crystal Tobias. “It takes years, if not decades, for recovery.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have to see this every year, and it needs to stop,” said Kathy Kaynner, another parkway volunteer.

Now, advocates are trying a new tactic to raise awareness—releasing a documentary film highlighting the growing problems that plague the parkway.

“It is about public safety,” Poggetto said.

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From tons of trash to increasing E. coli levels in the water, most blame the growing number of homeless camps in the area.

“There needs to be a permanent solution, there needs to be a place for the people to go so then the parkway can say it’s closed to camping,” said parkway volunteer Roland Brady.

County Supervisor Phil Serna says getting homeless off the parkway and into housing is a priority.

“This has been a challenge for years but I think with the COVID pandemic, like most things, it’s exasperated what local government is faced with,” Serna said.

Some recent actions could help. Sacramento has a new law banning camping along parts of the river and levees that are considered “critical infrastructure.” And volunteers have formed a new fire safety council which allows them to access state fire prevention funding.

It’s part of an ongoing effort to protect the area for future generations.

“If we don’t do something, we will reach the tipping point and we won’t be able to bring it back,” Tobias said.

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On just one day last month, volunteers say they collected 12,000 pounds of trash and more than 100 hypodermic needles.

Elizabeth Klinge