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To prevent wildfires, L.A. wants to make it easier to clear homeless encampments

A scorched pot is among the few remnants of a homeless encampment burned in the Skirball fire in 2017.
A scorched pot is among the few remnants of a homeless encampment where investigators concluded the Skirball fire started in December 2017. The blaze charred more than 400 acres in one of the city’s richest ZIP Codes.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

With wildfire season underway, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday announced a plan to make it easier for authorities to clear homeless encampments in severe fire zones.

The proposed ordinance, which will go before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee next week, would change the way the Los Angeles Police Department informs people that they must leave remote areas where the risk of a fire is most extreme.

Currently, authorities must post signs every 500 feet warning people not to trespass in such areas. The proposed ordinance would allow police to merely warn homeless people orally that they have to move — and not just on red flag days, Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez explained.

Los Angeles is particularly vulnerable to fires that start in hard-to-reach areas and then spread. In December 2017, for example, the Skirball fire was sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment nestled in a canyon several hundred feet from Sepulveda Boulevard and the 405 Freeway, hidden from passing cars.

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“These campfires don’t just have dire consequences for homeless Angelenos that live in remote brush areas,” Garcetti said Wednesday, flanked by the Los Angeles Fire Department’s fleet of helicopters and City Council members at the Van Nuys Airport. “They also threaten to leave more Angelenos homeless when their lives and properties are consumed by flames.”

The Skirball fire moved through the hills of one of L.A.'s richest ZIP Codes — in Bel-Air — and destroyed six homes. While the blaze burned just 422 acres, it was notable because of how it started.

Months later, a Bel-Air synagogue sued both the city and the county of Los Angeles, arguing that authorities had failed to clear the homeless encampment where it began. The case is ongoing.

More recently, a large fire just last month in the Sepulveda Basin displaced dozens of homeless people and required 100 firefighters and two helicopters to put it out.

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A Times analysis found last year that Los Angeles has least 114,000 structures in the highest fire hazard zones, with tens of thousands of houses on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley at risk in the Santa Monica, Santa Susana and San Gabriel mountains.

Officials said Wednesday that the change in notification protocols under the proposed ordinance would make it easier for law enforcement to do their jobs.

“It’s basically putting a blanket notice on those designated areas that trespassing is prohibited, and that we are going to be doing our due diligence, working with the [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] and all the different city agencies to help ensure we’re mitigating risk,” she said.

The proposed ordinance was announced at an outdoor event where the LAFD also unveiled an $18-million helicopter that it recently purchased and put into service. Dozens of firefighters stood alongside the larger fleet in the hot sun as politicians and Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas spoke.

During his remarks, as the temperature neared 90 degrees, Garcetti made a point of telling the firefighters behind him to not lock their knees. A short time later, as Councilman David Ryu spoke, one firefighter fainted and was taken away by ambulance.

“This is an example of what heat stress can do to firefighters,” Terrazas said. “Heat is one of our enemies in addition to the brush fire.”


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