Los Angeles

Firefighters Lose Critical Tool to Battle Rise in Homeless Fires

Many fire hydrants are disabled by homeless

In response to the NBC4 I-Team story below, Mayor Eric Garcetti's Office said the mayor has directed the fire department to begin inspecting fire hydrants across the city and power lines in high-density homeless encampments to better ensure lawful use.

The fire department will also develop an online reporting system to coordinate with the DWP in real time.

"Encampment fires underscore the absolute urgency of accelerating our work to confront the homelessness crisis through increased outreach and public safety measures," according to a statement from the mayor's spokesman.

Original story:

As the fire season arrives in Southern California, firefighters are bracing for another surge in blazes started by the homeless, often accidentally.

And the NBC4 I-Team has found that firefighting efforts might be hampered because some homeless have disabled fire hydrants to use them for bathing, cooling off, and drinking.

"I would say this puts firefighters at risk, it puts the community at risk, even the homeless at risk, if we cannot get to our water supply to fight a fire," said Chief Sam DiGiovanna, a fire expert who trains firefighters.

Note: The map below displays homeless encampment fires in LA County in 2018.

The I-Team surveyed fire hydrants in LA's skid row, where many homeless encampments have gone up in flames, including one this weekend.

They found one hydrant has been Jerry-rigged with a sink-style faucet to supply water to nearby sidewalk tents. On another hydrant, someone attached a bike pedal to use as a water pump.

And yet another hydrant had been illegally opened, and a homeless woman was observed bathing with the water.

"There's a possibility the hydrant is damaged and out of service, so we're going to have to find an alternative water supply," says Chief DiGiovanna.

Fires that start in homeless encampments pose a serious danger because they often spread to nearby apartments, homes, and businesses. Fires were started twice this last week in a homeless encampment in along the LA River, behind a group of townhomes in the west San Fernando Valley.

"This is my home, and I don't want to leave my home because of something the city, our government, can take care of," says Traci Nelson, who lives in one of the townhomes.

Nelson and her neighbors say they've asked the LAPD to move the homeless people to another area, because of the fire danger to their homes. They say the LAPD told them there's nothing the department can do, and suggested that the best option for getting help was to call the NBC4 I-Team.

Upset about the lack of response from the city, Nelson said she has a message for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.

"Where is the protection? If the homeless starting a fire is not a threat, maybe they should start a fire behind your house and see how much of a threat that is to you," Nelson said.

Nelson has good reason for concern. The I-Team has been tracking the number of homeless fires the last two years.

Data for 2018 shows a 211% increase in the number of these fires from the previous year. LA firefighters are now extinguishing almost seven fires a day started at homeless encampments or tents in neighborhoods across the city.

The I-Team has discovered a possible cause for some of these fires: some homeless tap into power lines to provide electricity for their tents, which can cause wires to short out and spark a fire. And firefighters say some fires are also started because the homeless use stoves and barbecues in their tents, which can easily go up in flames.

"Some of these tents are filled with a lot of combustible materials ... that could easily cause the spread of fire inside these tents," DiGiovanna told the I-Team.

Using open flames in public spaces, like encampments, violates the fire code. But the LAPD tells the I-Team it has issued just seven citations for these violations this year, even though our cameras have observed hundreds of open fires around tents in LA.

The LA Fire Department also has authority to issue citations, but a spokesman could not provide the number of citations issued to homeless tent dwellers.

Nelson thinks the city should not allow the homeless to live right behind homes like hers, putting her at risk from fires.

Nelson says the city should be "keeping the homeless from gathering back here, so we won't live in fear of our back fence catching on fire."

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