Incidents of fires erupting in homeless encampments in the Los Angeles area have risen sharply, creating a growing fire danger that puts homes, dry hillsides and entire neighborhoods at risk.
According to Los Angeles Fire Department data analyzed by the NBC4 I-Team, 799 fires were linked to homeless encampments in 2017, including tents and empty buildings; that’s an average of more than two fires a day. Five years earlier, In 2013, the number of such fires was just 104.
"Frequently it’s a cooking fire or a warming fire that we respond to, whether that’s in a brush area or in an urban area," said LA Fire Department spokesman Captain Erik Scott.
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I-Team cameras documented dozens of grills and outdoor propane stoves being used at encampments across the Los Angeles area. According to the LA Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, 31 tent fires broke out in the Skid Row area alone in 2017, some igniting adjacent buildings.
"To have an open flame inside a tent or to start a fire inside of a vacant building is illegal. It's against building and fire codes," Capt. Scott said.
Lighting an open cooking flame on a sidewalk also constitute fire code violations, but a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman told the I-Team that LAPD officers "aren’t enforcing" the codes.
Nearly 43,000 homeless and unsheltered people are living on the streets and in the canyons of LA County.
And the fire danger goes far beyond Skid Row.
"The most significant fire [recently] was the Skirball Fire in December," Scott said. "That spread over 400 acres, destroyed 6 homes and damaged 12 others."
After determining that the Skirball Fire originated in a homeless encampment, the LA Fire Department established a task force to survey and ultimately attempt to remove encampments from high-risk fire areas like the Hollywood Hills. The department told the I-Team most of the encampments originally identified have disappeared, but it’s possible they simply relocated.
Captain Scott says firefighters continue to search for encampments in high-risk areas.
"We’ve seen firsthand the devastating consequences of a tent fire burning out, and the burns and the injuries," Scott said. "There’s a real concern there."