Los Angeles

Taxpayers Could Be on the Hook if Fire Ignites in Homeless Encampment

After last year's Skirball Fire in the Sepulveda Pass was ignited in a homeless encampment, some residents demanded the City do something to reduce the fire danger from the camp sites.

NBC4's I-Team has learned what the city has - and has not - done.

Millions of dollars at the taxpayers' expense could be the result of inaction due to civil liability, should a new brush fire be traced to one of the homeless encampments the city knows exists.

Firefighters have mapped-out the locations of many of these camps, and some residents said they're furious the city has not forced the campers to pack up and move out.

A fresh foot path can be seen winding up a hillside close to where the Skirball Fire started in a homeless camp.

"...There was an encampment. It appeared as if it had been there for some time. People were likely sleeping and cooking there," said Los Angeles City Fire Department spokesman Erik Scott.

The fire burned for more than a day - chewing through 442 acres, destroying six homes and damaging a dozen others.

But for a variety of reasons, the city says it has not forced people camping to leave those same brush areas.

"With one flip of an ash, it could have started up again," a Bel Aire homeowner, forced to evacuate, said.

She was afraid to have her face shown or name used in our coverage.

She said she reported a homeless person smoking in the canyon behind her house a few days after the Skirball Fire.

"It seems to me that as we come into another fire season - that the exposure is still out there, and it's still something that's a huge concern coming into the fall," she said.

In the weeks after the Skirball fire, LA sent firefighters to map the locations of camps, and outreach workers were sent out, but the city has not enforced trespassing and other laws that could force the campers to leave.

Some of the camp sites mapped last January are still occupied, like this one along Laurel Canyon in Studio City. It's the city's knowledge of where the sites exist that legal experts say could lead to a huge bill for taxpayers.

"They know the danger exists, and they're not enforcing the laws," said Attorney Brian Kabateck.

Kabateck, who's also the president of the LA Bar Association, says the mere fact the city has a list of encampment sites could put taxpayers on the hook for the damages if another fire starts in a known camp site and burns homes.

"For the mayor simply to say, we're just going to know where they are, and track them and keep them, that just isn't enough, and it's going to end up leading to liability for the city," Kabateck said.

Mayor Garcetti said he's not worried about the legal liability.

"Look, I'd rather know where folks are, and on high fire risk days, we now have a policy to go out there and ask people to, to get out of those places," he said. "My mind is to make sure that we know where these areas are."

As NBC4's I-Team reported Wednesday, the Mayor's office says it's unable to enforce trespassing laws on some city owned properties, because not enough "no trespassing" signs have been installed.

The Mayor's office says it's working on a better solution, and says it knows residents in brush fire hazard zones are very worried.

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