Note: More than three dozen current and retired firefighters around California in city and county departments, as well as Cal Fire, were interviewed for this story. Citing official policy as well as political pressure, many were not willing to go on the record and requested that potentially identifying information be withheld.
Last week’s Saddleridge Fire burned 8,500 acres, destroyed or damaged 107 structures, and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes. It also marked the unofficial start to California wildfire season. While the investigation into the fire has thus far focused on a Southern California Edison transmission tower on Saddleridge Hill, as in recent years among the biggest concerns are homeless fires. A walk through the burn zone last Saturday and Sunday revealed dozens of individual encampments replete with cook stoves, butane canisters, cooking equipment, and other fire dangers. In the canyon directly below the suspected ignition site was a homeless camp including a fire pit, cook stove, and bottles of flammable materials. If homeless activity didn’t start the Saddleridge Fire it assuredly helped the flames along.
These scenes have become frighteningly common throughout Los Angeles and California, endangering residents, firefighters, and the homeless themselves.
Last Monday in Sunland-Tujunga firefighters responded to two small blazes that broke out in illegal encampments in the Tujunga Wash. A few weeks ago in Paradise, site of last year’s apocalyptic Camp Fire, a homeless woman was arrested for intentionally starting three small blazes. Members of the Facebook group Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes post incidents virtually every day. Thanks to failed political leadership this is California’s new normal.
On a recent tour of their facilities and equipment, the crew at a fire station in Los Angeles showed off their trucks, engines, ladder, and other vehicles. They described the equipment’s capabilities while rattling off a head-spinning litany of statistics (the newest engines, for example, can deliver a total of nearly 2,000 gallons per minute, or 33 gallons per second, on a blaze). Then the topic turned to L.A.’s homeless crisis, which was when the tour and interview turned into something of a therapy session for a clearly frustrated crew.
The captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “We get multiple calls every day to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires easily jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Inevitably, some spread to houses, apartments, and other buildings.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
When asked to estimate what proportion of fires his crew extinguishes are attributable to the homeless, he shook his head and replied, “At least 90%.” He explained that thanks to modern fire safety and suppression measures structure fires are actually quite rare. However, the number of overall blazes in Los Angeles has increased exponentially, a direct result of the city’s homeless crisis.
The captain at another station, when asked how many fires in his area are attributable to homeless activity, replied, “All of them.” Interviewed at 5pm on a Sunday he said his crew had responded to eight just that day. “There are days we can barely keep up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.” The crew said it’s common for them to get more than ten calls per day for homeless fires, from dumpsters in alleyways behind apartments and houses to grass fires in parks. Another member of the crew described how they regularly witness homeless people smoking near gas mains, setting camp fires in piles of garbage, and cooking over open flames next to apartments and homes.
Homeless fires are starting to have catastrophic consequences statewide. According to Contra Costa Fire District Public Information Officer Steve Hill, “A lot of our fires end up starting in and around homeless encampments.” Residents of Oakland are calling homeless fires in that city a “crisis.” And just two weeks ago, a family of five in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to a homeless encampment in an adjacent alley. According to local reports, neighbors had contacted the city’s 311 hotline for months to report the camp as well as previous fires, to no avail.
Illegal encampments causing blazes in wildfire zones
As in Sylmar, homeless fires are now commonplace in many of the state’s highest fire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles city commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council in the San Fernando Valley, says that there are dozens of illegal encampments in the mountain just outside her community. “They start fires every single day. Our firefighters are at their limit.” Ms. Grant spoke to The All Aspect Report in her capacity as a concerned citizen.
Despite the daily dangers, city councilmember Monica Rodriguez, who boasts of being the daughter of a firefighter and who is chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, has done virtually nothing to address the crisis in her district and in the city. In 2017 her district endured two of the worst fires in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The cause of those fires remain officially unsolved; locals attribute them to homeless activity.
Like the crews in Los Angeles County, a firefighter in Ventura said that his county is experiencing a dramatic increase in its homeless population, and along with it an increase in the number of fires. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon he pointed to the 8,000 foot mountains that encircle the bucolic town of Ojai. In December 2017 the Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres of those mountains, destroying 1,087 buildings and killing a firefighter. He explained how it was “dumb luck” that Ojai itself was spared: Ironically, the Santa Ana winds that helped create the inferno pushed the flames to the southeast, away from the city. The fire burned in a ring along the mountains instead of consuming the populated valley. “Next time we might not be as fortunate,” he said.
According to a senior official in the Los Angeles Fire Department, there are hundreds of abandoned buildings in L.A. that are unfit for human habitation but where people nevertheless are squatting. The official, who declined to go on the record, said, “We can’t inspect buildings we don’t know about. We can’t warn people or get them out.” Homeless people routinely cook over open flames inside tents and abandoned buildings. “It’s like a game of Russian roulette,” said the official. The combination of rampant homeless fires, abandoned and uninspected buildings, and squatters is a recipe for disaster. It’s only a matter of time before the next conflagration claims lives.
Another crew likened the abandoned buildings to the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where a December 2016 fire killed 36 people. While that fire was caused by the managers’ potentially criminally negligent maintenance, the comparison nevertheless is apt: When asked if there are potential Ghost Ships in L.A. occupied by homeless people or squatters one firefighter replied, “Dozens. Maybe hundreds. We just don’t know.”
What’s more, like so many other official statistics the number of reported homeless fires almost certainly is an undercount. That’s because many fire departments and agencies don’t specifically track homeless fires. For example, Scott Mclean, the Public Information Officer for Cal Fire, said that while the number of has increased the agency doesn’t keep count. Cal Fire is responsible for some 31 million acres of land in the state, all of it privately owned. Mclean said that California’s fire seasons are getting worse, due to factors including drought cycles, increased fuel loads, development, and population growth.
Despite spending billions of dollars at the state and local levels the homeless crisis in California continues to deteriorate. In this year’s annual homeless count, virtually every community in the state reported substantial increases in their populations. And as previously reported in these pages and elsewhere, those official numbers are massive underestimates.
At the same time, many policies are exacerbating the problems. Laws and court decisions increasingly tie firefighters’ and police officers’ hands. The notorious Prop 47 (deceptively titled the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”) freed tens of thousands of allegedly nonviolent offenders from state prisons. But the same lawmakers who saw fit to release those felons failed to provide services such as job training and transitional housing, meaning that many of those released ended up on the streets. At the same time, Prop 47 downgraded a range of felonies to misdemeanors, meaning police cannot make arrests. Even when they do, offenders are often back on the streets within hours. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles prevents cities from issuing citations or arresting people for vagrancy. Many observers attribute the explosion in the state’s homeless population to that decision.
For the foreseeable future, then, it seems the crisis is only going to spiral. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns. Until elected and appointed officials can show they are serious about solutions, millions of Californians will remain in harm’s way.