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, aninvestigation 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 inSan Diego, Oxnard (Ventura County),Goleta(Santa Barbara County),Modesto (Stanislaus County),Stockton (San Joaquin County), Contra Costa, andRedding (Shasta County), among other places throughout the state. In July a homeless fire in the Bay Area city of Pittsburghdestroyed a family owned roofing business. San Francisco firefighters extinguished ahalf 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
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 totax 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?
Less than a week after Councilwoman Nury Martinez announced a third cleanup in Lake Balboa Park in as many months, piles of garbage remained and homeless people were returning to illegal campsites
Part Two of an occasional series
The man’s voice screamed from a dense grove of willow trees on the west bank of Bull Creek in Lake Balboa Park on Sunday afternoon: “Who the f*** is there? Who the f*** is it? My dog will f*****g kill you!”
As if to confirm the threat, with the man’s encouragement a dog started barking and snarling. Suffice it to say no one in their right mind would have ventured any further. It was one of countless places in the park that remained unsafe for anyone but the homeless who continue to live in illegal encampments despite multiple city cleanups and official promises to clear them once and for all.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez launched the latest effort last Wednesday. Gathered with select members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments she told reporters, “Today is part of an extensive cleanup on city of Los Angeles-leased property at the Sepulveda Basin that began in August and will continue until completed. The city has a duty to ensure that park hours are enforced and the Basin remains safe and accessible to all visitors.”
“Extensive” is a relative concept. Even where city workers had cleared campsites they’d left huge amounts of refuse. Indeed, garbage was everywhere, including piles of flammable clothing, wood, and electronic equipment. The stench of excrement hung heavy in the air. In places it was nearly suffocating. The water in Bull Creek was fetid.
Moreover, less than five days after the cleanup the homeless were reclaiming much of the space for themselves. Patricia Wilcox, 28, of Mesa, Arizona, said that she and her partner stayed on nearby streets for a few nights, and had returned to their old campsite on Saturday.
Many campsites appeared to have escaped attention altogether, including subterranean dwellings near the creek reminiscent of Viet Cong bunkers. There was a sense of defiance: Boomboxes blared music and the sounds of building echoed through the undergrowth and along the creek bed itself: Hammering, sawing, even power tools. People were carving new campsites into the undergrowth bare feet from the parking lot and from a hill where children rode bicycles and scooters. People unloaded everything from tents and cooking gear to furniture and electronic equipment – all of it almost certainly stolen – from dilapidated cars, vans, and campers.
In short, despite the Councilwoman’s rhetoric and the city’s activity, resources, and promises Lake Balboa continues to be a dangerous place. Indeed, if the last two days are any indication the park has become even more perilous since the cleanups, as if the homeless have circled the wagons.
When we visited in late July after a fire in another part of the park, the camp’s inhabitants were friendly if suspicious. We spoke with many of them, and a couple provided contact information. One even gave a cell number. They spoke openly of their lives in the camp. There were sentries, but they kept their distance and nodded in acknowledgement as we passed.
Not this time. On Sunday, an air of menace permeated the park. In addition to the man with his pit bull, sentries on stolen bicycles kept vigil over strangers, making no secret of their presence. At one point one of them said loudly to another camp inhabitant, “I’m following this motherf***r who’s taking pictures.” This is what has become of too many public spaces in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about the city’s failure to clear out Lake Balboa Park. Two weeks ago the all aspect report exposed homeless fire dangers in a half dozen communities – all places where members of the City Council and other officials have promised action.
It’s almost as if L.A.’s political class doesn’t want to end the homeless crisis at all.
Utilities bear the brunt of politicians’ blame, but homeless activity causes many more blazes
Part One of an occasional series
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
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 bothfires 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
His actions this week raise the question: Does he even want this job?
On Tuesday evening some 30 people, including the editor of this blog, witnessed Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin approach a homeless man who had started a small fire on the corner of Centinela Avenue and Culver Boulevard. The encounter occurred during the councilman’s walking tour of planned changes to Centinela. He stood a couple of feet away and watched silently as the man poured accelerant onto the fire and even stuck his own hand in the flames. After less than thirty seconds Mr. Bonin turned around and walked away without doing anything. He even yelled at a staffer who’d stayed behind out of concern, telling him to get away.
None of these facts are in dispute. The entire encounter was caught on multiple cameras and scores of people have since told their version of the story, all of which have been consistent down to the details. The videos simply capture the scene, nothing more and nothing less. They justifiably went viral. Local radio stations and media picked up the newsworthy story. As of today the videos have been viewed some 20,000 times.
Mr. Bonin had several options in response. He could have taken accountability and acknowledged that he made a mistake, an error in judgment. He could have used the encounter as a learning experience and affirmed that situations like the one on Tuesday are unacceptable in any society, much less on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. He could have admitted the myriad shortcomings and failings of his and the City of Los Angeles’s homeless policies to date and promised to be open to creative new solutions. In the process, he could have turned the situation into a political advantage and perhaps won over some skeptics by finally taking a degree of accountability.
It comes as a surprise to few in his district that he did none of those things. Instead, after three full days of silence on the situation he went into full spin mode. He dispatched a staffer to give a quote to a friendly local publication in which he attacked the messengers as “right wing trolls” engaged in a “smear attack.” In the process, he smeared his own constituents for the sin of caring about the trajectory of their neighborhood, community, and city. In deflecting responsibility he turned on the very people he – allegedly – represents. It was a truly pathetic display.
Perhaps the worst part is that five days later Mr. Bonin himself hasn’t had the courage said a word. Instead he’s hidden behind friendly publications and staffers.
Dissecting Mr. Bonin’s dissembling
Here is Mr. Bonin’s spokeman’s statement:
“After the Councilmember became aware that a group of people were filming, mocking and making a spectacle of the obviously unwell man as the Councilmember attempted to speak with him, the Councilmember thought it best to de-escalate the situation and ask his staff to reach out to professionals immediately. Councilmember Bonin’s team connected with LAPD and service providers, who responded to the scene immediately and engaged the man shortly after the Councilmember’s first contact, ensuring the fire was extinguished and no threat to neighbors. Outreach professionals were able to connect with the man and he is already in the process of getting off the street.”
Every single sentence, virtually every single word, is a demonstrable lie.
Lie #1. “After the Councilmember became aware that a group of people were filming, mocking and making a spectacle of the obviously unwell man….” Not a single person mocked nor made a spectacle of the homeless man. People most assuredly mocked and made a spectacle of Mr. Bonin and his shameful response, which under the circumstances was completely justified.
Lie #2. “…as the Councilmember attempted to speak with him….” As the videos show, Mr. Bonin made no effort to speak with the homeless man. He stood silently and watched. Moreover, we have since learned that the homeless man speaks little to no English, so it’s difficult to imagine how the councilman could have communicated with him at all.
Lie #3. “…the Councilmember thought it best to de-escalate the situation….” The situation was not “escalating” in any sense of the word. People only started calling out to Mr. Bonin after he walked away, asking him what he was doing and if he thought it was acceptable for a homeless man to be playing with fire. If anything, Mr. Bonin’s failure to act amplified the situation.
Lie #4. “…and ask his staff to reach out to professionals immediately. Councilmember Bonin’s team connected with LAPD and service providers, who responded to the scene immediately and engaged the man shortly after the Councilmember’s first contact, ensuring the fire was extinguished and no threat to neighbors. Outreach professionals were able to connect with the man and he is already in the process of getting off the street.” This entire statement is false. At the scene Mr. Bonin appeared to yell at a staffer to get away from the homeless man, and he and his team walked away. Moreover, numerous residents visited the scene later that evening and the following day, and the man was still there along with his belongings. A full 24 hours later a resident found him and took a picture of him wielding an enormous hunting knife, Rambo-style.
Indeed, as that resident, Demetrios Mavromichalis, reported on news radio, it wasn’t until he himself went to a nearby police station that the man was finally arrested and taken into custody. There was no evidence – zero – of Mr. Bonin’s claimed outreach, much less of the man “in the process of getting off the street.”
If Mr. Bonin had done the right thing he could have scored a PR victory
Mr. Bonin’s constituents are asking many questions this week, one of which is, “Doesn’t the councilman realize that he could have come out of this situation with a moral and political win?” He could have suspended the Centinela “walk tour” and handled the situation at hand. In the process he would have demonstrated empathy both for the homeless man and the countless residents his behavior threatens. He could have shown leadership and reassured people that he really is the man for the task. Even after walking away, he could have highlighted the encounter on his web page and social media and made a priority of getting the man the help he obviously, desperately needs.
Instead, he went silent for three days until the videos, news, comments, and shares finally overwhelmed him. Then, at 6pm on Thursday evening, his Deputy Chief of Staff attempted damage control. On the councilman’s Facebook page he launched a fusillade against the councilman’s own constituents, accusing them of “exploiting” the situation and “mocking” the homeless man. It was as transparent as it was abhorrent, suggesting that people were berating an obviously distressed individual.
Which raises the question: Project much, Mr. Bonin? YOU are the one who showed a callous disregard for one of the most vulnerable members of our community. All the spin and dissembling won’t change that. The failure of your leadership was on full display this week, and you’re not going to lie your way out of it.
You were elected by barely 14% of the voting-age residents in your district (31,865 out of an adult population of 272,000). You have nothing approaching a mandate, yet you have conducted yourself like the West Side’s own carpetbagging tin pot dictator. The people who took the video, the people who have viewed, shared, and commented on it, are part of the 86% who didn’t vote for you. They are the ones you viciously slandered and attacked. It’s enough to make people wonder whether you really even want this job.
Enjoy the rest of your term while it lasts, Mr. Bonin. L.A. cannot get rid of you fast enough. The vast majority of your constituents, upon whom you have declared open war, will see to it.
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 postincidents 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.
His warning is frighteningly prophetic, as there already have been several fires in the area this year started in homeless camps, including one last month in Oxnard.
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.