VIEWPOINT: The City Needs to Enforce the Law to Help Prevent Fires Started by the Homeless

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This fire in the Via de las Olas bluffs was started by a homeless fire.

Prevention and readiness were the key words that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti emphasized at his press conference on August 23 at at Van Nuys Airport. He was urging Los Angeles residents to work on a wildfire action plan and to review the protocols for “Ready, Set, Go.”

The final step –“Go” — is not to waste time if a fire is approaching, but to evacuate, with bags and kits inside vehicles and pets located and loaded. “I know this is scary stuff,” Garcetti said, “but we have to as Californians know these facts and prepare for them to protect our loved ones.”

Luckily, Pacific Palisades residents have had practice loading up the cars over the past few years because of brushfire evacuation — most recently during the Highlands fire, when a transient started several fires on the dry hillsides. Most of Topanga had to evacuate and Highlands residents were put on notice.

A week later, in May, another fire started by transients raced up the Via de las Olas bluffs above PCH around 6 p.m. Luckily, there was no wind, and the area was filled with people waiting to watch the sunset, so the fire was reported almost instantly.

The same day as the Mayor’s press conference, another fire was rapidly tamped down here. It was started by a person smoking meth in the brush at PCH and Chautauqua.

According to a May 13 AP story (“Number of Damaging Fires in Los Angeles Homeless Camps Grows”), “Fires linked to homeless tents and camps are raising concerns in Los Angeles, where flames claimed seven lives last year and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to nearby businesses.”

The L.A. Times reported on May 12 (“24 Fires a Day: Surge in Flames at L.A. Homeless Encampments a Growing Crisis”) that “In the three years since the city’s Fire Department began classifying them, the number of blazes related to homelessness has nearly tripled.” In the first quarter of 2021, fires occurred at a rate of 24 a day, making up 54 percent of all fires the department responded to.

“Many fires are attributed to cooking, heating and smoking amid the flammable materials found in homeless street camps, makeshift shelters and RVs,” the Times said. “Others were intentionally set. Arson was blamed for a third of more than 15,600 fires related to homelessness in about the past three years. Some were set by outsiders, but police say most stemmed from disputes between homeless people.”

Mr. Mayor, my to-go bag is ready. Now it’s your turn to have the city not only enforce an ordinance (185490) that you signed in April 2018 about fire safety in emergency homeless shelters, but to ensure the numerous homeless encampments that have taken over public spaces in the city and brush are also in compliance.

In that ordinance, smoke alarms, automatic fire sprinklers and portable fire extinguishers are required, and open flames and storage of combustibles are not permitted.

Given this ordinance, why are the homeless encampments on streets not held to the same fire safety regulations?

Sam DeGiovanna, a former L.A. County Fire Department employee, wrote in a 2019 Lexipol story  (“When the Call Has No Address: Fire Department Response to Homeless Encampments”) that problems include:

* Places where homeless individuals have tapped into street poles for power, running extension cords to their tents. This, of course, creates fire hazards that may be difficult to spot, especially at night.

* Fire hydrants that had been tampered with to provide water for drinking, bathing and laundry. Needless to say, this puts fire personnel, homeless individuals and the greater community at risk because fire crews may not be able to access water needed for fire suppression. (Editor’s note: This was a problem at the Ballona Homeless Fire, when an RV van was illegally parked by a fire hydrant and couldn’t be moved.)

* “Tents” that are much larger than your simple camping tent and consist of many different materials cobbled together, often without noticeable entrances. Some homeless individuals store propane, butane, car batteries and other hazards in their tents. Responding to a fire in a homeless encampment can therefore pose the same hazards as a dumpster fire, with exposure and explosive risks. (Visit: https://www.lexipol.com/resources/blog/when-the-call-has-no-address-fire-department-response-to-homeless-encampments/)

Okay, Mr. Mayor, I have done brush clearance, I am ready to evacuate—although with only three roads in and out of Palisades (Sunset, Chautauqua and Temescal Canyon), make sure you give us plenty of notice. The last time we had a major evacuation (the advancing Getty fire), there was gridlock getting out of town..

Clearly, it’s up to city and county officials and first responders to keep us safe from people who don’t want to follow the fire safety codes or rules, such as cooking in tents or smoking meth in the hillsides around us.

This would be easier than giving a fire extinguisher to everyone who is unhoused.

Water-dropping helicopters stopped the May transient fire before it could reach the homes and giant eucalyptus trees on the bluffs.

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2 Responses to VIEWPOINT: The City Needs to Enforce the Law to Help Prevent Fires Started by the Homeless

  1. Ron Midwin says:

    Well said Sue. We all need to get involved in making this a priority downtown. If the mayor and District Attorney don’t want to enforce their jobs, they should resign.

    And another note, your “Circling the News” is my first source for accurate information.

    It is an invaluable resource that is much appreciated.

  2. Sean says:

    Great video, parody of Billy Joel song, about Venice
    WE didn’t start the fire

    https://youtu.be/CZ3ZDbZkGDI

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