Photojournal: As wildfires rage, Los Angeles officials ignore homeless fire dangers across the city

Utilities bear the brunt of politicians’ blame, but homeless activity causes many more blazes

Part One of an occasional series

LAKE BALBOA (August 4, 2019) A propane tank next to a live power cord in a homeless camp in Lake Balboa Park. For the second time in three months a fire broke out last week in this area of the park. Witnesses reported seeing and hearing propane tanks explode. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Angelenos have awakened every day this week to pillars of smoke from wildfires. As of this writing the Getty Fire, which started early Monday morning in the Sepulveda Pass, has burned nearly 700 acres, destroyed at least eight homes, and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Also on Monday firefighters extinguished a small homeless fire in Calabasas, and battled three structure fires in empty buildings in downtown L.A. likewise attributable to homeless activity. On Wednesday morning residents in the San Fernando Valley woke to their own latest conflagration, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley. Early reports suggest that fire began in an illegal encampment. And this morning it was San Bernadino’s turn. In all there are at least seven active fires in southern California, part of a grim new annual tradition throughout the state. It’s just another week in Paradise.

Over the last two years much attention has (rightly) been focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis utilities were responsible for at least 2,000 fires between 2015 and 2018. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in northern California is by far the worst offender. For years its management – with deep ties to the administrations of Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom – operated with virtually no oversight as its executives prioritized their own compensation and shareholder returns over public safety.

Nevertheless, the number of fires triggered by failed or damaged utility equipment pales in comparison to the number started by homeless activity. A recent analysis by NBC L.A. found that in 2018 alone there were more than 2,300 fires attributable to homeless activity in Los Angeles County.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 2,000 fires statewide in three and a half years caused by utilities, versus 2,300 in a single county in a single year caused by homeless activity. Neither Mayor Eric Garcetti nor the City Council have expressed the degree of concern, much less urgent action, the crisis demands. In fact they have been virtually silent on the issue.

It’s time to hold them accountable.

Over the last several weeks, the all aspect report has been compiling pictures and stories from around Los Angeles that demonstrate the terrifying extent of the fire dangers posed by the city’s burgeoning homeless population. From electric generators and cook fires to the use and manufacture of illegal narcotics, the homeless crisis poses a mortal threat to Angelenos every minute of every day. Until now, however, the true extent has remained somewhat elusive. Scroll down to see pictures and stories, and check back with the all aspect report often as we continue to add to the journal.

CD7: Monica Rodriguez refuses to order clearing of dangerous illegal encampments

SUNLAND-TUJUNGA (October 26, 2019) An illegal homeless camp in the hills west of Sunland-Tujunga. A radius of ten yards around the site was charred and burned, and the camp was scattered with propane canisters, gas cans, cook stoves, and refuse including electronic equipment. Nearby residents report the man starts fires on an almost daily basis. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, whose district includes some of the highest fire hazard zones in the city, is the daughter of a retired LAFD firefighter. She emphasized her father’s bravery during her council run, filling her campaign materials with firefighting imagery, including pictures of herself as a little girl at her father’s station. She currently chairs the city council’s public safety committee.

Strange, then, that she has done virtually nothing to secure her district, which includes some of the city’s highest fire hazard zones, from wildfire threats posed by the homeless. Despite three catastrophic fires in the last three years (Creek, La Tuna, and Saddleridge) scores of illegal encampments remain throughout CD7, from Sylmar’s horse country to the eastern sections of Griffith Park in Glendale. Brush fires are not just a daily fact of life in Rodriguez’s district: They happen multiple times every day. Residents of Sylmar, Pacoima, Shadow Hills, Lake View Terrace, Sunland-Tujunga, and elsewhere live in fear virtually year round. Homeless encampments have sprung up in drainage ditches, ravines, mountains, and canyons. Nowhere seemingly is safe. Councilwoman Rodriguez’s much-ballyhooed homeless cleanups have come to naught.

Two weeks ago, while hotspots still smoldered in the aftermath of the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, the all aspect report visited the burn zone. The charred remains of homeless camps littered the hillsides above the Stetson Ranch Equestrian Park. There were numerous cook stoves of various types, scores of propane and butane bottles, batteries, electronics, and aerosol bottles. Many of the pressurized bottles had exploded, suggesting extreme dangers for firefighters. Which is not mere speculation: Exploding propane tanks were documented during both fires in the Sepulveda Basin.

The gallery below is a small sampling of the images from the fire area (Photographs by Christopher LeGras and Lydia Grant).

Officially the Saddleridge Fire is being attributed to a Southern California Edison transmission tower located on the eponymous hilltop. However, a wildfire expert who visited the site with the all aspect report said that charring, burn patterns, and other evidence strongly suggest the fire started in the canyon at or near the large homeless encampment pictured above. A spokesperson for the LAFD, after initially cooperating, stopped corresponding.

Regardless of whether the camp is responsible for the fire, tens of thousands of people and their homes remain in harm’s way thanks to Ms. Rodriguez’s inaction.

CD11: Mike Bonin walks away from fire dangers

DEL REY (October 15, 2019) Mike Bonin stands with his hands in his pockets as a mentally disturbed homeless man plays with fire. A few second later he walked away without interceding, despite the fact that there was a police station across the street. Screen shot from a video by Travis Binen.

The story repeats in council district after council district. Another prime offender is CD11 Councilman Mike Bonin. Two weeks ago he drew heavy criticism across the city after he was filmed standing idly by as a mentally disturbed homeless man played with a fire in a dry, grassy median in the Del Rey neighborhood. He stood over the man with his hands in his pockets for 30 seconds before turning and walking away without a word, even though there was an LAPD station less than 50 feet away on the other side of Culver Boulevard. After three days of silence, Mr. Bonin lashed out at his own constituents and residents, blaming the video on “right wing trolls” who “exploited” and “laughed at” the homeless man. The man was arrested two days later after a neighbor reported he was brandishing a large hunting knife.

The homeless danger continues to spread throughout Mr. Bonin’s district, and like Ms. Rodriguez he shows little appetite for tackling the problem in any realistic way. From decrepit RVs to sidewalk encampments to illegally occupied buildings, the danger increases literally on a daily basis.

The captain at a LAFD station in Mr. Bonin’s district, 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.” His team echoed the sentiment.

Then again, with an armchair general like Mike Bonin in command it’s no wonder the rank and file feel abandoned.

LOS ANGELES (October 28, 2019) An RV with a burnt roof parked next to a brush covered hillside on the Pacific Coast Highway at the border of CD11. A gasoline generator was running in front of it, connected by a cord to the vehicle. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

CD6: Nury Martinez allows homeless to continue living in a park where they’ve already started at least two fires that threatened neighborhoods

After an illegal homeless encampment burned down in Lake Balboa Park in Nury Martinez’s district the all aspect report visited the area. It turned out the camp was just one of at least a half dozen scattered throughout the 80 acre recreational area. Electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away. Some people had connected TVs and other devices in their tents to generators in RVs parked hundreds of yards away.

The city belatedly cleaned up the camp after it burned (though officials claimed the cleanup was scheduled before the fire broke out) but left the others untouched.

It was clear that the camps had been there for quite some time. Many of the people living there literally had dug in: Reinforced underground bunkers lined a long section of Bull Creek, which itself has been transformed into a fetid swamp by refuse and human waste. Walking through the encampment triggered a disconcerting frenzy of activity, as men on bicycles rode in constant circles around the area keeping an eye on a stranger. Barely five minutes elapsed between passes, which often were accompanied by intimidating stares. It was clear who ran the park, and it wasn’t the city.

The fire danger in the camps was omnipresent. At one camp a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels and buckets handy, as well as hoses they can connect to public spigots. “There’s a fire every few days,” added Roberto, who asked that his last name not be used because he is in the country illegally. Confirming his statements, charred spots peppered the ground.

LAKE BALBOA (August 3, 2019) Many people living in the Lake Balboa homeless encampments have dug in. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

As in Rodriguez’s and Bonin’s districts these dangers are not secret, yet Ms. Martinez’s website is virtually silent on the issue. Ms. Martinez has publicly commented on them yet has failed to act beyond another half-hearted cleanup in late September that obviously failed to eliminate the danger: A fire broke out in the park last Thursday.

CD14: In Jose Huizar’s district, fires in RVs and abandoned buildings

LOS ANGELES (September 21, 2019) The charred remains of a burned-out RV sit in the street in downtown L.A.’s produce district. Photograph by Manny Rodriguez.

During a recent tour of a LAFD station in Jose Huizar’s district, 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.

Another member of the crew invoked the Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Dozens of artists and squatters had converted a warehouse into a makeshift community. “We have a hundred potential Ghost Ships in our area,” said the firefighter, alluding to the epidemic of homeless people taking up residence in condemned buildings. “It’s incredibly easy for a trash fire to jump to a building. Fires seek fuel, and we have tons of it.”

Blazes routinely erupt in alleyways, buildings, and encampments in Mr. Huizar’s district. In July, an immigrant family of five lost their home to a blaze that started in a dumpster in the alley behind it. A week later firefighters doused a fire that started at a homeless encampment in Skid Row. They were responding to reports of a trash fire in a large homeless encampment, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Donn Thompson.

LOS ANGELES (October 23, 2019) Another burned-out RV on the streets of downtown. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Again, the story is the same as in other districts: Residents and business owners routinely report encampments, often for months and years, to no avail. It’s only when a fire breaks out that they see any action.

“If anything, it’s actually gotten worse,” Captain Thompson told KTLA News.

What is it going to take for officials to act?

Angelenos, like all Californians, have been asking themselves a singular question for the last two years. As the homeless crisis continues not only to spiral but accelerate, what is it going to take for officials to finally start acting with the sense of urgency – even desperation – the situation demands?

At least three people are perishing daily on the streets of Los Angeles, the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Is that not enough? 2,300 homeless fires erupted in 2018. Is that not enough? Hundreds of Angelenos have lost homes, cars, and other property to homeless fires. Is that not enough? Tens of thousands of acres have burned, releasing enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to wipe out the gains from California’s renewable energy push by an order of magnitude. Is that not enough?

Politicians constantly talk about the “new normal” of wildfires. In reality, the new normal is their own lack of competence in solving the crisis. Thanks to officials like Councilmembers Rodriguez, Bonin, Martinez, and Huizar, solutions are farther away than ever.

Buckle up, Los Angeles, the ride is only going to get worse.

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