Los Angeles

LA Approves a Plan Making It Easier to Clear Homeless Encampments in Fire Zones

The zones that will be marked off limits would be in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones identified by Cal Fire

What to Know

  • The plan would allow police to order homeless people out of encampments located in brush areas on high-risk fire days.
  • Most of the San Fernando Valley is within the zones high-risk zones, which are identified by CalFire.
  • Data for 2018 shows a 211 percent increase in the number of homeless encampment fires from the previous year

An ordinance that gives law enforcement the authority to order homeless people out of encampments located in brush areas on high-risk fire days was approved  Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council.

The zones that will be marked off limits would be "Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones," which are mapped by Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. Officials said most of the San Fernando Valley is within those zones, but they are limited by the state as to how large the zones can be.

Under the plan, which was approved by a 13-0 vote, the enforcement will be addressed in three tiers.

  • First: No-risk days when LAFD would provide fire education materials for people in the areas.
  • Second: Red-flag fire warning days when law enforcement would be permitted to remove people.
  • Third: An enforcement response during a brush fire emergency.

Note: The map embedded in this article indicates homeless encampment fires in LA County in 2018.

The ordinance is expected to be signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

"The implications ... are dire in fire zones, particularly on red-flag days," City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said last week. "There are inherent threats that we must mitigate and provide safety for all individuals."

Homeless people who are removed from the fire zones on high-risk days will be referred to supportive services, Rodriguez said.

"What we are doing is providing all the wrap-around services," she said. "When we evacuate these areas, we are getting them the services and resources they need to be permanently off the streets."

City Councilman Paul Krekorian said that the law should be viewed as a way to keep people safe and not as a way to discriminate against homeless people.

"This is not a homeless issue. It's an effort to move people out who are violating the law. People who are trespassing ... and increasing the fire risk need to be dealt with appropriately," Krekorian said. "I hope the story won't be that this is an attack on homelessness. It is not."

The city is barred from removing homeless people from public areas per a federal appeals court ruling last year, but it has the authority to pass laws related to public safety. Other cities in Southern California have passed similar laws. 

City Councilman Bob Blumenfield proposed the new law in January.

The NBC4 I-Team has been tracking the number of homeless encampment fires the last two years.

Data for 2018 shows a 211 percent 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.

City officials will have to find funds for the requests made by city agencies in order to enforce the proposed rules. A report on the fire zone proposal showed the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation and Environment is asking for five more full-time employees, several small vehicles and fire protection equipment. LAPD and other departments are also making requests for more resources.

The Unified Homelessness Response Center would track data of homeless people in areas where encampments repeatedly crop up.

In the motion, the council members acknowledged the city posts warnings on high-risk fire days, but they said it would be more effective to allow law enforcement to notify people in person.

"This notice would also warn the person that failure to immediately leave the restricted portion of the zone, or leaving and returning to the zone, constitutes a criminal trespass," the motion states.

Julie Raffish, an assistant Los Angeles city attorney, said the ordinance would allow law enforcement to fine or arrest people who don't comply.

The danger of homeless encampments in high-risk fire areas was highlighted July 30, when a blaze tore through brush in the Sepulveda Basin, where at least 100 homeless people were living in a makeshift encampment. The flames destroyed a number of tents and belongings of people living in the area.

In December 2017, the Skirball Fire scorched more than 400 acres in the Sepulveda Pass, destroyed a half-dozen homes and damaged 12 others. Fire officials initially said the blaze was sparked by "an illegal cooking fire," but it was unclear if that preliminary finding has yet been confirmed by investigators.

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