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.

An open letter to Governor Gavin Newsom: No, California’s homeless crisis isn’t the federal government’s responsibility. It’s yours.

(LOS ANGELES, CA) September 13, 2019 – Life in Gavin Newsom’s California. Photo by Christopher LeGras.

Dear Governor Newsom:

There’s a saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who kills his parents and then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today you displayed that sort of temerity in your letter on the subject of homelessness to President Trump. In what will go down as one of the most shameless examples of buck-passing in the annals of American political history you asserted, “We all agree that homelessness is a national crisis decades in the making.”

You and the rest of California’s political class have been bludgeoning this expired equine for the last year. You push the notion of homelessness as a national problem with ephemeral causes dating back decades not because it’s accurate but because it absolves your Party – which has run California for 40 years – of accountability.

Let us be crystal on a few critical points, Mr. Governor. First, no one outside the Sacramento echo chamber buys what you’re selling. While homelessness is by no means exclusively a California phenomenon, this state’s crisis is entirely self-inflicted. You should stop claiming otherwise, because you’re embarrassing yourself and the state in front of the entire nation.

Second, the rot of California’s homeless crisis is a direct result of conscious policy decisions by you and your Party. In that way the crisis is decades old, but it’s strictly of your Party’s making, a Party forever finding new ways to make life in the Golden State more expensive and less livable. You impose costs on small businesses with empty gestures like the plastic straw ban, only to turn around and hand out millions of plastic syringes to addicts. I don’t know about you, Mr. Governor, but I’ve never worried about impaling my foot on a plastic straw at the beach, nor have I ever seen piles of straws littering public parks where children are playing. And if you forced Flipper to choose, I’m guessing he’d rather contend with straws than infected needles. Meanwhile, the purported benefits of these so-called “needle exchange” programs – to the extent there are any – have been negated by official incompetence.

Which is one of myriad examples of how your policies and those of your Party created the homeless crisis. For starters, you’ve made it easy for people to destroy themselves with addiction. Thanks to legislation and litigation – not to mention relentless pressure and propaganda from a hydra-headed confederacy of “progressive” nonprofits, foundations, activists, consultants, lawyers, unionistas, and others – today in California a person can get high in public, wander drunk down the street, and relieve themselves on the side of a school building, all without fearing so much as a sideways glance from a cop. No intervention, no action, move along, nothing to see here.

As a consequence, a person can waste away in a tent on public property without anyone noticing. That’s not hyperbole: Two weeks ago on nextdoor.com, a Hollywood resident posted pictures of a place where that exact scenario played out. A man expired inside his tent in the parking lot of a City of Los Angeles senior services center, literally 25 feet from the front door. I spoke with a number of homeless people in the area, and they told me the man was there for less than a week, and that he never came out of his tent. It was 95 degrees the day I talked with those folks, meaning it would be at least 120 inside a tent. Yet according to a woman who identified herself as Aquarius, none of the city workers bothered to check on him until they noticed a smell. It wasn’t professional responsibility or human decency that prompted city employees’ attention. It was the stench of death.

HOLLYWOOD, CA) September 1, 2019 – A bouquet of 7-11 flowers marks the place in the parking lot of an L.A. City senior center where a homeless man died of dehydration in his tent. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

In fact, Aquarius told me that another homeless person had been camping in the parking lot a couple of weeks earlier. One day she brought him a bottle of water and some food. The staff at the senior center rebuked her and told her that if she continued giving handouts they would bar her from the center. “I can’t help wondering if I could have helped the man who died,” she told me, nodding at the bouquet of flowers she and a friend had placed at the site. A flash of pain showed in her blue eyes.

In short, as a direct result of your Party’s policies countless thousands of people are slowly dying. Nearly 1,000 homeless people perished in Los Angeles alone last year, a number that’s sure to increase this year. This is the situation in the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history.

Meanwhile, under anodyne-sounding euphemisms like “prison realignment,” your Party has released tens of thousands of felons onto the streets – including violent sex offenders – with no plan for integrating them back into society. Many of them have ended up homeless, contributing to an epidemic of criminal behavior.

Or at least, their behavior used to be criminal, but your Party took care of that, too, didn’t it? Rather than acknowledge the catastrophe of policies like AB 109 you and your Party have effectively decriminalized dozens of felonies. You unilaterally put a moratorium on the death penalty, and now you’re pushing for parole reviews for murderers serving life sentences without the possibility. The chaos on our streets is a mystery to no one but you, Mr. Governor.

Your Party has imposed other outrageous policies like “Complete Streets,” which have contributed to snarled traffic and gridlock that, again, impose the greatest costs on the state’s most vulnerable. I’m a lawyer and a journalist, Mr. Governor. I can make money sitting in my car talking on the phone. The Mexican immigrant in the pickup over in the next lane? Not so much. He’s trying to get from his house in Pacoima (the only place he can afford to live thanks to the state’s outrageously warped housing policies, another Democrat gift) to his landscaping gig in Brentwood. The 90 minutes he’s on the road is nothing but wasted time and extra expenses. At some point those added burdens could break him.

And that’s the central point you and your Party have missed: Every traffic jam costs you support. Every smashed window, every night of disturbed sleep, every assault, every tax increase, every trash pile, every wildfire, and every petty indignity is another Californian walking away from you and your Party. Every new homeless encampment, our very own Newsomvilles, weakens you and your Party. Eventually the people will revolt. If the election of Donald Trump has taught us anything it’s that conventional political wisdom is no longer a reliable indicator of outcomes, much less the public’s attitudes.

(VAN NUYS, CA) July 25, 2019 – A Newsomville encampment in Balboa Creek State Park. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

If I were you, that idea would keep me awake at night. We know you don’t lose sleep over the issues affecting actual Californians – that much has been clear since your feckless turn as San Francisco mayor (Brittanie Mountz, Mr. Governor, really?). When you were a supervisor you saw a mayor in the mirror, when you were mayor you saw a governor, and now that you’re governor you see – God help us – a President. If I were you I’d be staring at the ceiling at 3a.m. terrified that tonight will be, excuse the pun, the last straw. That tonight will be the night reality catches up with you and your Party. That tonight will be the hundred thousandth smash and grab, and that will be the tipping point. Or worse, that tonight will see an atrocity even worse than the ones you and your Party already have unleashed.

Last week I wrote that California is a failed state. I was not being hyperbolic – after a half century of virtual one-party rule nearly every public institution is collapsing from within, from our schools to our streets to our courts and our jails. Atop it all sit you and your Party, surveying the devastation and then begging help from a President you openly loathe.

Which raises the final critical question: Even if the federal government were to open its till and send you the billions you request, why should anyone in California – much less the rest of the country – have a scintilla of confidence that you and your Party will spend the money effectively, much less wisely? Looking at the Democrats’ handiwork in the state – failed school systems, mass poverty, rampant crime, crumbling infrastructure, public corruption, out-of-control living costs, illegal immigration, the destruction of the middle class, crushing taxes and regulations, bloated bureaucracies – how can you expect us to believe that you’ll solve a homeless crisis your Party created? When we look at the nearly $2 trillion in debt and public liabilities for which you and your Party have us on the hook, why should we have any faith in your policy discipline? In short, how can we possibly believe that after nearly half a century California Democrats will finally get it right on this one?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t. Which is why a reckoning is coming to Queen Califia’s land, Mr. Governor. There are already innumerable examples of citizens taking what’s left of the law into their own hands. Trust me when I tell you that vigilante justice is already here, and it’s entirely understandable and rational under the circumstances. It’s only going to accelerate as more and more people lose faith in you and the government you oversee.

You can only push people so far – every tin pot dictator in history eventually learns that lesson. You will, too. Only it will be too late for your political career. You’ve already lost the center, the right was never in play, and now you’re even losing the left. The only question is how it will end: Recall, electoral defeat, legal action. Perhaps a full-on revolution.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can only pray it won’t be too late to rescue what’s left of our once beautiful state. Californians deserve so much better.

Very truly yours,

Christopher D. LeGras

California firefighters report massive increase in homeless fires statewide, endangering lives and property. “It’s like Russian roulette,” says one.

The County of Los Angeles recently mapped homeless fires from 2018, more than 2,300 in total. Graphic courtesy of County of Los Angeles.

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.

LOS ANGELES, Ca (July 27, 2019) Homeless encampments like this one in downtown Los Angeles’s Warehouse District are tinderboxes waiting to explode. Photo by Christopher LeGras.

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.

PARADISE, Ca (November 23, 2018) Burned-out cars line the road in the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire. Photo by Christopher LeGras.

Russian roulette”

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.

Bike lanes can’t help cyclists who won’t protect themselves

Ignoring a dedicated bike lane, a cyclist dangerously splits lanes down San Vicente Boulevard in West Los Angeles in mid-day traffic.

The video out of Brooklyn, New York on July 1 is as gut wrenching as it is heartbreaking. A cyclist speeds down the sidewalk and into a blind intersection without slowing down. Tragically, she tries to cross the street just as a cement truck enters the intersection. She swerves at the last second, but it’s too late – she hits the front of the truck, falls off her bike, and is crushed under the truck’s back wheels. A surveillance camera caught the accident (warning, the video is extremely graphic and will be disturbing to some readers). The victim was a 28-year-old woman named Devra Freelander, an artist who lived in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. She died at the scene.

In Manhattan on June 24th, a 20-year-old bicycle messenger collided with a delivery truck in morning traffic. Robyn Hightman was riding in traffic when they* hit the truck from behind. The driver, who continued to drive several more blocks before being flagged by a taxi driver, claimed he never saw them.

The accident occurred near the intersection of Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) and 24th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Ironically, in response to pressure from bike activists, in 2016 the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) installed a protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue between 8th and 33rd Streets. In December of that year Streetsblog NYC gushed that “the new protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue … has turned one of the city’s most stress-inducing bike routes into one of its best.”

The protected bike lane, left, on Sixth Avenue at 24th Street, near where a cyclist was killed in an accident on June 24. The cyclist wasn’t using the lane at the time of the collision.

According to CBS affiliate WKTR, “police determined [Hightman] was not in the bike lane and was traveling between vehicles when they were struck.” Likewise, the New York Post reported Hightman “was pedaling between cars” when the crash occurred. Eyewitnesses, including the cab driver who stopped the truck driver, confirmed that Hightman struck the Freightliner truck from behind. Images of the scene show a mangled bicycle in the middle of the street, several dozen feet from the bike lane.

The response to the accident was predictable to anyone familiar with bike activists and their radical agenda. Rather than using the tragedies of Freelander’s and Highman’s deaths as a teachable moment New York’s bike activists (all 37 of them) went into full outrage mode. Instead of taking a hard look at the circumstances, they raged about “reckless truck drivers,” “dangerous drivers,” and of course, “traffic violence.” These are the same cohorts who gleefully boast about bike rage, and howl about evil school bus drivers (seriously). They even claim to be an “oppressed class” (again, seriously).

In short, they do everything but take responsibility for their own lives.

Yet the simple fact is that cyclists often are their own worst enemies. They routinely blow through red lights and stop signs. They lane split in rush hour traffic while listening to music and checking texts. They ride the wrong way down one-way streets. They ride at night with no lights or reflective gear. They bait and taunt motorists. These are all incredibly risky actions yet they are the norm for far too many cyclists. If cyclists don’t take responsibility for their own safety, there’s little the rest of us can do. Indeed, in the name of speed and convenience many riders routinely ignore roadway features specifically intended to protect them.

A memorial gathering for Hightman the night of the accident was a prime example of the activists’ warped ideology. What started as a (relatively) peaceful vigil quickly turned into a protest that ultimately erupted into an Antifa-style riot. Several activists dragged two men from their car and beat them in the street. They also damaged the men’s car along with multiple others. Nothing calls sympathy to a cause like intentionally, violently assaulting innocent individuals (not unlike the Antifa riot in Portland last weekend that left journalist Andy Ngo with a brain hemorrhage).

This man, with visible injuries, claims he was attacked by rioting bike activists.

Despite the activists’ self-righteous outrage and violence, Freelander’s and Hightman’s deaths are tragic illustrations of how bike lanes cannot prevent every single accident and death, particularly when cyclists themselves don’t obey traffic rules. A reporter from the New York Villager visited the scene of Hightman’s death a few days after the accident. He observed, “several cyclists…veering out into car lanes near the intersection to avoid heavy pedestrian traffic and slower bicycles, and then turning back into the bike lane midway up the block.” Cyclists swerve out into traffic in order to maintain their preferred speed rather than slowing for pedestrians (as required by law). That, in a word, is unsafe. If they won’t prioritize their own safety, Vision Zero and all the bike lanes in the world can’t help them.

Activists often point to confounding factors like cars, trucks, and buses parked illegally in bike lanes. They point out that some drivers are simply oblivious to bicycles and sometimes overtly hostile, with dangerous consequences. Those are valid points. Again, however, the law requires bicycle riders to observe the rules of the road. If a driver encounters a double-parked car, the solution isn’t to swerve into the oncoming lane without slowing down. Given their inherent vulnerability cyclists should be even more cautious. If they encounter a slower rider ahead of them they have to slow down themselves until it is safe to pass. These are the rules of the road.

Alas, a drive through most any downtown core these days involves navigating among a constant scrum of law breaking velocipedians. As bike lanes and other “bike infrastructure” proliferate nationwide, attitudes among cyclists have shifted from self preservation to privilege. Even though they comprise a vanishingly small proportion of road users (with the exception of few college towns no U.S. city has a bicycling rate higher than 4%), they wield outsize influence in city planning offices and even city halls. Groups like New York’s Transportation Alternatives are extremely well-funded and dominate the narrative over traffic safety. In their narrative, cyclists are never responsible for their own actions, much less their own safety.

If someone decides to drive drunk and ends up crashing into a tree and dying, we don’t blame the tree. Yet in every single cyclist death the activists blame everyone and everything but the cyclist, even when that cyclist flouted traffic laws intended to protect them.

A cyclist ignores the protected bike lane and weaves through traffic on Spring Street in downtown L.A.

The fact that riders like Freelander are responsible for their own accidents doesn’t make it their fault. Even when they’re 100% responsible, they’re still victims. Victims of an increasingly entitled and aggressive lobby of bike activists who blame everything on cars and drivers even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. It’s the only message young people like Hightman have ever heard. They have grown up in an era in which American cities collectively added tens of thousands of miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths, giving riders a sense of primacy. Cyclists are taught to ride aggressively rather than cautiously and defensively. The ultimate tragedy is that it’s the bike activists themselves who lure innocent people to their doom by imbuing them with a false sense of priority and safety.

The fact of the matter is, choosing to ride a bicycle is choosing to take certain risks. Cycling on city streets, particularly major thoroughfares, is an inherently dangerous act, one made inestimably more dangerous by many cyclists’ own conduct and decisions. When it comes down to it there’s nothing between a rider’s body and the pavement.

Unless and until the bike activists are willing to acknowledge so much as a scintilla of these realities people will continue dying on the streets.

  • *Robyn Hightman went by the pronouns they/them.