Los Angeles

Fire Dangers and the Homeless: What Prevention is Being Done?

The red flag fire danger warning has now been lifted in the City of Los Angeles, but over the last few days while it was in effect, the City had promised to try to reduce the danger of new brush fires by sending outreach workers to homeless camps in wilderness areas.

NBC4's I-Team has been following the City's response to the homeless camp fire danger after the Skirball Fire last December. That fire started in a homeless camp and destroyed several homes. 

After the Skirball Fire in the Sepulveda Pass, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti had firefighters map out the locations of encampments in high fire danger zones -- like in the dry, brush-covered canyons in the Hollywood Hills next to hundreds of homes.

The Mayor said the plan was to visit the camps and encourage the people living there to move to shelters.

The City says it cannot force people living in the high fire danger zones to leave, even on days when the risk of a brush fire is most extreme.

City officials said a 30-acre fire in Griffith Park last Friday was traced to a homeless encampment and it nearly got out of control because so many of LA's firefighters and water-dropping helicopters were trying to stop the much larger, wind fueled brush fires in Ventura County.

By Sunday night, the city had declared its own Red Flag warning and special parking rules went into effect.

Then another fire started in a homeless encampment along Burbank Boulevard in the Sepulveda basin, and dozens of people ran from encampments in a creek bed. Another fire started Tuesday night in the Hansen Dam recreation area in Lake View Terrace, and firefighters say it too started in a homeless encampment.

Mayor Garcetti's plan as he described to NBC4 in August was to dispatch outreach workers from the LA Homeless Services Agency to check on camp sites, where many homeowners who live nearby have complained they can see people in camps, smoking, or lighting cooking and warming fires in the middle of the dry brush.

"...When we know that there are high risk days, just as we post fire warnings telling people to move their cars, those are appropriate days to take action, to prioritize and ask LAHSA to be able to go out to those places and engage and that's what our policy is now," he said at a news conference. 

Over the weekend, the LA Homeless Services Agency said it sent outreach workers to several known camp locations, including the Sepulveda Basin and Sepulveda Pass.

"A lot of the outreach teams have already worked the high severity zones," Matthew Tenchavez, who helps manage LAHSA's response to emergencies, said. He told NBC4 that eight to 10 people accepted shelter offers, the rest were offered face masks, water, and information about city resources.

"We're not law enforcement, so we can't get them to leave the encampments, but we do educate them, there's a fire going on, and we highly advise you to get out of those locations," he said. 

The LA City Fire Department says it sent extra brush fire patrols through the high fire danger zones. Firefighters looked for fires and reported the locations of homeless camps. But firefighters also do not have a role in enforcing laws, or trying to force the people in the camps to leave.

"We are very concerned, because, we found out sometimes in those homeless encampments people are cooking, they're providing themselves their own meals, but if those cooking fires should get out of hand, and get into the brush we have a bigger problem on our hands," said LAFD Deputy Chief Phillip Fligiel. 

City officials say people camping in state brush areas, or who are living on city-owned property, are violating the law. But the mayor's office says police can only force the campers to leave if the City spends the money to install hundreds of no trespassing signs.

Since that hasn't been done, an official says there can't be enforcement.

The mayor's office says the City is very aware of the risk and is trying to mitigate it within the law.

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