Number of damaging fires in Los Angeles homeless camps grows

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fires linked to homeless tents and camps are raising concerns in Los Angeles, where flames claimed seven lives last year and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to nearby businesses, according to a newspaper report.

In the three years since the city’s Fire Department began classifying them, the number of blazes related to homelessness has nearly tripled, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. In the first quarter of 2021, they occurred at a rate of 24 a day, making up 54% of all fires the department responded to.

The paper said its analysis of records showed that fires related to homelessness doubled in all of the department’s 14 districts since 2018, the first year of complete records. The fires were most prevalent in downtown and South Los Angeles.

In the popular Venice beach area, a fire that started in a tent destroyed a Venice boardwalk office building in January.

A rash of fires among camps on the boardwalk has prompted residents to petition city officials to act. The Fire Department has equipped a new paramedic unit with a 150-gallon water tank that can respond to flames more quickly than a bulkier fire engine, KCBS-TV reported.

Many fires are attributed to cooking, heating and smoking amid the flammable materials found in homeless street camps, makeshift shelters and RVs, the newspaper said. Others were intentionally set. Arson was blamed for a third of more than 15,600 fires related to homelessness in about the past three years, the Times reported. Some were set by outsiders, but police say most stemmed from disputes between homeless people.

Dumpsters and trash piles are set ablaze, and melted plastic city trash cans are not uncommon in some areas of Los Angeles.

In 2017, a wildfire sparked by a cooking fire in a ravine destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen others in the ritzy Bel-Air neighborhood. A fire started last August by a homeless person destroyed $1.5 million worth of merchandise in a warehouse owned by New Tech Display, co-owner Suzanna Naylor said.

Since 2017, fires linked to homelessness have caused $185 million in damage — 22% of all fire damage in the city — including $12 million in the first quarter of this year, according to preliminary results of a Fire Department study.

Homeless people themselves are often the main victims of the fires. Seven homeless people died in fires last year, including two considered homicides and two that were ruled suicides, authorities said. Accidental fires have claimed the lives of three homeless people so far this year, the Times said.

“It takes a toll,” said Justin Szlasa, an organizer with the nonprofit Selah Neighborhood Homeless Coalition.

Victims lose “literally everything that they’ve had with them on the street, which includes where they’re sleeping, their clothes, often documents that are necessary to access services,” he said.

The city has removed large and hazardous encampments in a few cases, but officials say they are hamstrung by court rulings, including one upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that says people can camp on sidewalks if alternative shelter isn’t available.

“Years of litigation and a growing number of court injunctions have significantly limited the city’s legal right to dismantle unsafe structures, or enter encampments to remove the hazardous items causing many of these fires,” said Jose “Che” Ramirez, deputy mayor for city homelessness initiatives.

Cleanups aimed at “threats to public health and safety” also were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Two fires in the past month burned an area where homeless people had gathered under a freeway overpass near the city’s vast Griffith Park.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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