Thousands of fires break out every month statewide. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war,” says on LAFD firefighter
Note: More than three dozen Los Angels Fire Department personnel were interviewed for this story. None of them were willing to go on the record, citing concerns over professional retribution. All told similar stories. First responders from other California cities did go on record.
During a recent tour of a downtown Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) station, the captain pointed at one of the trucks. “We call this one the dumpster fire tender,” he said. “Every day we get multiple calls to fires started by homeless folks. Cooking or heating fires jump to nearby fuel sources like trash cans and refuse piles. Some spread to houses, apartments, or other buildings. Of course, the first things to burn are the homeless folks’ own possessions. They’re most in danger.” He would not go on the record because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue.
The captain at a station on the west side, 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.” Shaking his head, he added, “Sometimes I feel like we’ve already lost the war.”
As Los Angeles and California brave another fire season, the attention of politicians and the media has focused on the role of utilities in starting wildfires. After the Kincade Fire burned 77,000 acres and nearly 400 structures in Sonoma County in October, Governor Gavin Newsom accused Pacific Gas & Electric of prioritizing revenue over safety. He said, “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.” (Governor Newsom and his wife Jennifer Siebel have accepted more than $700,000 in contributions from the utility and its employees)
Utilities have caused fires, including some of the worst in the state’s history, but on balance homeless activity is responsible for far more blazes. While utility equipment has been blamed for some 2,000 fires statewide in the last three and a half years, an investigation by NBC L.A. found that there were 2,300 homeless fires in Los Angeles County in 2018 alone. That’s likely an undercount, as it often is difficult to ascertain how fires start. As Jonathan Baxter, Public Information Officer for the San Francisco Fire Department told the all aspect report, “If a 911 caller reports a trash fire in an alleyway, we’ll record it as a ‘small debris fire,’ even if the conditions on the ground suggest homeless activity.”
Homeless fires have had devastating consequences for communities and families. The October Easy Fire, which burned 6,000 acres and threatened some 7,000 structures including the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, is suspected to have started in a homeless encampment. In June a family in South Los Angeles lost their home to a blaze attributed to an encampment in an adjacent alley.
In the last three months fires attributable to transients have broken out in San Diego, Oxnard (Ventura County), Goleta (Santa Barbara County), Modesto (Stanislaus County), Stockton (San Joaquin County), Contra Costa, and Redding (Shasta County), among other places throughout the state. In July a homeless fire in the Bay Area city of Pittsburgh destroyed a family owned roofing business. San Francisco firefighters extinguished a half dozen fires in the same park in two weeks. In Oakland, residents call the situation a “crisis.”
The crisis endangers smaller communities as well. In the central valley town of Paso Robles, Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta said that homeless fires spiked from 43 in 2017 to 115 last year. The number is on track to increase again this year, with 63 as of mid-June.
Chillingly, officials in Chico, adjacent the burn zone of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and obliterated the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Upper Ridge last year, report numerous homeless fires every week. Members of Facebook groups like Butte County Fires, Accidents, & Crimes post incidents every few days.
Homeless people themselves sometimes take matters into their own hands. Since July at least three fires have started at an illegal encampment at Lake Balboa Park in Van Nuys. The city began a cleanup of the camp, but the problem is there are four others in the park. At one of them, a man named Roberto said, “We put out fires all the time, usually before the firefighters get here.” Inhabitants keep shovels handy, and hoses they connect to public spigots. Still, electric cords zigzagged through dry undergrowth, past propane tanks, under garbage piles, and into dwellings. Gasoline generators chugged away.
The dangers aren’t just in illegal encampments. An official in the LAFD Fire Prevention Bureau said that transients often squat in buildings unfit for human habitation. 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 and heat with open flames inside buildings. “It’s Russian roulette,” said the official.
Homeless fires have become particularly common in wildfire hazard zones. Lydia Grant, a former Los Angeles City Commissioner and current member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, pointed out the locations of illegal encampments in the mountains surrounding her community in north east L.A. She said, “On average there’s a fire every day.” In 2017 the area endured two of the worst conflagrations in L.A. history, the Creek and La Tuna Fires. The causes remain unsolved, though many residents blame homeless encampments. Ms. Grant says, “We don’t have any support from the city.”
Meanwhile, in the face of threats to hundreds of communities and millions of lives, the state’s political class is busy trying to tax drinking water and eliminate plastic straws. While Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 budget increased funds for Cal Fire, the overall picture remains grim.
Do they not recognize what the rest of us have known for a long time now, that the next homeless fire could become the next Camp Fire?