Column: Bel-Air fire displays L.A.’s extremes of wealth and misery

A scorched pot is among the few remnants of a homeless camp where investigators believe the Skirball fire, which burned more than 400 acres, started.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Sunbaked and wind-battered Los Angeles, blessed and burdened city of extremes, is home to those with everything and those with nothing.

Last week, the two worlds intersected when a cooking fire at a homeless encampment destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen others in Bel-Air, where affluent residents complain now and then about the scale of colossal estates that dwarf their own mansions.

There has to be meaning in this, or it wouldn’t play so much like a parable.

Was it a warning, a reckoning, a call to action?

What does it say about Los Angeles and how should we respond?

Not that long ago I cruised the hills and canyons and rolling estates of Bel-Air after a report that some of the biggest water guzzlers in drought-stricken California lived there, unidentified but thoroughly quenched.

Firefighters douse a hot spot next to a vineyard charred by the Skirball fire in Bel-Air.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )

A problem we can’t ignore

On Wednesday I was back in the same neighborhood, where hills had turned black and ash covered vehicles, wondering if all that irrigation helped keep losses to a minimum.

Up on Casiano Road, where two homes were reduced to charred rubble, Mavis Presler stepped outside to toss something into her recycling can. She held crossed fingers to the sky, saying she was lucky because all that burned at her house was a rear bathroom.

“I do think we need to do more about the homeless,” she said.

They live everywhere now, not just in the human corrals we were always content to confine them to. It’s as if they’ve come up with their own answer to the NIMBYism that has thwarted efforts to plant resource centers and supportive housing throughout the region.

Now they’re in every neighborhood. If you’re going to be homeless, why not move to the canyons of Bel-Air?

A new city task force on fire prevention is going to take a look at safety measures. But, as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told The Times, “given the topography of … all the hills in our city, we could do that 24 hours a day and still miss a lot of people. Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents, you can never get to zero risk. And I think it would be a mistake to think we could.”


We are nowhere near zero risk. We have more than 34,000 homeless people within city limits alone, and all the efforts to do something about this — including City Council approval Wednesday of a so-called linkage fee on new development to pay for affordable housing — are never enough to meet ever-growing demand.

“As soon as that fire erupted I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, I’ll bet it’s going to be from that homeless encampment near the 405.’ And that’s exactly what it turned out to be,” said Nickie Miner, vice president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council.

Firefighter Ken Williams puts out a hot spot on a fire-ravaged home along Linda Flora Drive in Bel-Air.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )

Homeless vs. ‘illegal campers’

Miner said she didn’t know anyone living in that particular camp, but she claimed other homeless people in the area are “survivalists,” or “illegal campers.” She said they’ve made a choice to live as they do, and they resist help.

I’ve certainly met some people like that in my travels. But I’ve met far more homeless people who, rather than making choices, ran out of options. Low wages, high rent, mental illness, addiction and combat fatigue are all part of the profile.

John Maceri of the People Concern, one of the largest homeless services agencies in the region, said he did not know the residents of the area where the fire started. But his teams have been reaching out to homeless people on the bluffs in Pacific Palisades and in the canyons of Malibu.


“I don’t know about the term ‘survivalist,’ but there are some people who have gotten very comfortable living off the grid,” Maceri said, including those who have a mental illness but are what he called “high-functioning.”

“It’s typical of the stories you hear all the time,” he added. “Something happened in their lives, they lost their housing, and they’ve been able to survive.”

From skid row to Bel-Air

On Casiano Road, I spoke to Wendy Schwartz while crews worked on the smoke damage that her house sustained.

“I’m sympathetic to the homeless,” said Schwartz, who said she often saw a man who appeared to be mentally ill living in the vicinity of where the fire began. She saw others, too, who looked younger and not as addled. And she saw piles of trash on 405 Freeway underpasses and knows that some people are resistant to help.

Her response to all that, said Schwartz, an interior designer, has been to get involved.

“I do things to raise money,” she said, telling me she supports the United Way and participated in the organization’s march to end homelessness.

From her backyard, we looked out on the charred terrain. Fire danced up to and around houses and sprawling estates, ringing the vineyard that climbs the hill above media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s house. The fire burned some of Schwartz’s backyard garden, too.


When I asked about the irony of homeless people living in such an affluent community, Schwartz said it’s not just Bel-Air.

“They’re everywhere.”

Are there answers?

Yes. There always have been, although the combination of low wages and high rent is a huge obstacle.

We need more housing, Maceri said, more outreach and less NIMBYism when it comes to services and housing.

Until we get there, the homeless will settle here, there and everywhere, from skid row to Bel-Air.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez



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