This house burned down in November 2021. What happened next is the story of Watts
Gustavo Flores Álvarez was getting ready for bed on that November night in 2021 when he thought he heard a gunshot. Instead, the back of his house was on fire — where his adult son was fast asleep. He screamed for his wife, who awoke their son, and the family fled the house.
Álvarez frantically picked up a garden hose. But all he could do was helplessly watch as his worst fear came true.
“When it caught onto the tree, I had to back off,” Álvarez said.
By the time firefighters doused the fire, much of the house had been reduced to ashes.
Álvarez, who owns a cabinet-making business in a cramped factory half a block from the house, has become a heart-wrenching example of the gloom and frustration spreading over his Watts neighborhood from a nearby 10-acre field of weeds and homeless camps owned by the city of Los Angeles.
The fire that burned his house started in a homeless camp occupying a dirt path that extends from the so-called Lanzit property along the Compton Creek channel behind a row of factories and residences on East 108th Street.
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The city of Los Angeles bought a 10-acre property to bring jobs to Watts after the 1992 riots. Proposed projects came and went, leaving weeds, trash and shanties.
The city purchased the property in 1994, intending to turn it into an industrial park that would bring jobs to South Los Angeles as part of the recovery from the 1992 riots. Instead, 28 years later, it remains a haven for squatters, car thieves and drug dealers.
Eight months after the fire, the burned-out shell of the house stands untouched, and what used to be the homeless camp remains a pile of blackened rubble and melted plastic —- a glaring symbol of civic dysfunction.
Because of confusion over who was responsible about the waste, the city did not receive notice of the hazard, Elena Stern, senior public information director for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, said last week.
“There was a lack of clarity about whose property that was,” Stern said.
Then on Monday, Stern reported that a city crew visited the site and photographed the encampments but concluded they were the county’s responsibility.
But later Monday, informed that a spokesman for the Los Angeles County assessor had told The Times the strip of land between the channel and the houses is part of the city’s public right-of-way, Stern backtracked.
“Given that there are several jurisdictions involved here, now that we at LASAN [L.A. Bureau of Sanitation] have been made aware of the situation, we will coordinate with the City Council office as well as with the county on the cleaning of our respective properties,” she said.
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The concrete channel falls under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, but the dirt path parallel to it is part of the Los Angeles city street system.
Álvarez hasn’t been able to fix his house yet because the insurance company has covered only a part of the $200,000 replacement cost.
The $70,000 shortfall is equivalent to more than 100 weeks of hard work in the furniture workshop making closets and cabinets.
“We are saving up to fix the house,” he said. “But the $1,400 of rent for our temporary house has been an added expense. My wife is working at a clothing store to make up for some of it.”
Camps have become a major source of fires across Los Angeles. Cooking outdoors, burning wood to keep warm, and heating up drugs to inject or smoke are among the many causes of these fires.
Álvarez said he thinks the man who built the encampment behind his house sparked the fire while trying to steal power. He had notified the police about the man, who would often get high and play loud music. But nothing happened.
The man has now set up a new camp a short distance down the same pathway, and more fires have occurred, terrifying others on the block.
“Do you know how scary it is to get a call that says there is another fire behind your home?” asked Álvarez’s next-door neighbor, Yvonnette Brown. “I constantly live in fear of something happening at the back of my house.”
Her daughter, Sabrina Brown, said she stays up all night worrying about what’s going on behind her house. “We don’t have the means to replace the house if it gets burnt down,” she said.
The new encampment sits directly behind the cramped two-bedroom apartment where Álvarez moved after his house burned.
“I feel helpless living in an area like this,” he said. “It is like we don’t matter. I immigrated from Mexico because I wanted a better life for my kids. ... When we bought the house in 1997, I felt like it justified our decision to immigrate from Mexico.”
Álvarez lost the letters his wife, Marta, had written to him from Mexico when he first arrived in L.A. in 1989. He lost the clothes he had preserved from his sons’ first birthdays. He fears his family wil live with insecurity for the rest of their lives.
“You work day and night for years to build something and it is gone in a matter of hours,” he said. “Even today when I see a fire, I feel a knot in my stomach.”