In the early-morning hours of December 6, a wildfire began spreading through the hills surrounding Bel Air, California, eventually blazing through the Santa Monica Mountains along the side of the 405 freeway and damaging parts of a vineyard owned by Rupert Murdoch. Although no lives were lost, six homes in one of the wealthiest communities in the U.S. were incinerated.
Six days later, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced it had determined the cause. “LAFD investigators have determined the fire was caused by an illegal cooking fire at an encampment in a brush area adjacent to where Sepulveda Boulevard crosses under the San Diego (405) Freeway,” the release stated.
The same day, describing information provided by the L.A. Fire Department, Mayor Eric Garcetti told a local ABC affiliate, “It was a propane burner that somebody had out there in an encampment area near where Sepulveda and the 405 intersect.”
Los Angeles Times reporters traveled to what they believed to be the site, based on directions provided by the fire department. They photographed an encampment in the area and noted that “all that remained Tuesday was a scorched portable stove, a pot, a cheese grater, several fuel canisters and the remnants of a boombox. Burned pages of the Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia littered the charred brush and rocks in the canyon.”
“We have too many people in the city that live outside, who are homeless, who are in encampments,” the mayor said. “Combined with strong winds it’s what made these fires so quickly become so dangerous.”
According to wildfire researchers, one of the biggest factors that makes wildfires dangerous is sprawling urban development. And more recently, research has focused on how wildfires are fueled by climate change, like rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. But unlike a flood or a drought, a wildfire starts with a spark. And even though wildfire researchers argue that identifying who started a particular fire won’t actually describe its cause, as soon as a wildfire spreads, officials begin searching for someone to blame.
In L.A., the city’s homeless population has been targeted as a fire hazard. But interviews with the LAFD arson unit’s battalion chief indicate that the news release attributing the city’s Skirball fire to a homeless person’s cooking fire contained information considered “preliminary.”
“We are not even close to finishing the investigation, yet,” Mike Castillo told The Intercept, less than a week after the cause was announced. He underlined that an investigation can take six months to a year.
In contrast to Mayor Garcetti’s description of a propane burner, Castillo said, “At this point in time, with any certainty, I can’t tell you if it was a cooking stove, wood, charcoal briquettes — we just don’t have enough information.”
In another December conversation, when asked about the L.A. Times story, he said the photographer, “took a picture of a stove in a burned out canyon. If he’d gone one canyon over, there would have been more pictures of stoves burned out.” He said, “If the L.A. Times wants to go out there and take pictures of a bunch of debris and insinuate that’s [where the fire started], I can’t control the L.A. Times or the media.”
When Intercept reporters asked a fire department public information officer, Peter Sanders, for the location of the encampment, he shared directions similar to those given to the L.A. Times.
In a follow-up conversation in January, Castillo stood behind the contents of the press release and the mayor’s “propane burner” remark and stated that he was unsure whether or not the photographed camp site was the one that started the fire but that it was in the correct area. “In all likelihood, it was a homeless encampment area where the fire started, either a cooking or an illegal warming fire,” he said, noting that investigators had found a propane stove that they believe to be the cause.
But he also reiterated that the potential cause was preliminary and only a “general area of origin” had been determined; there were no suspects or witnesses, and the windy conditions that spread the fire had complicated efforts to find its precise origin.
“There was evidence of multiple cooking sites in that area. Based on the amount of damage, there would be no way to say it was specifically this spot that caused the fire,” Castillo said. “A wind-driven brush fire is very tough to tell the spread of the fire, the direction, because the wind blows in all different directions.”
Asked whether a cause other than a homeless person’s fire was possible, Castillo said, “At this point, we would say no, because we’ve ruled out any other possibilities,” but he added, “That’s not to say we [won’t] interview someone and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I was smoking there, and I threw my cigarette down there right where the stove was.’”
Uncertainty aside, city officials sprang to action almost immediately, assembling a task force to survey encampments in fire-prone areas and drawing up plans to clear them.
Nickie Miner, vice president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council and community liaison to the city council, says the city’s priority should be “getting them out, clearing out their gear, and keeping them out. I frankly don’t care how they do it, as long as they do it.” She added in an email, “’Asked to leave voluntarily’ is ridiculous. Wishy-washy, useless. That’s the problem, will never happen. They know they can stay, they do stay, and they are not about to leave. That’s why a tougher, constant, consistent stance has to be regularly employed. The homeless population needs to know they cannot set up in OR NEAR the Hills. Period. Bleeding hearts aside, the public safety issue is paramount, first priority.”
Now downtown Los Angeles business owners say Bel Air is getting all the attention, while they, too, have a problem with fires caused by the homeless. And after a relatively small wildfire broke out in Malibu this week, rumors have spread among residents that the homeless are to blame.
“We’re all for folks being safe, housed or unhoused,” said Eric Ares, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network. But, he said, “There is a history of different law enforcement agencies using these sorts of tragedies and problems as a way of dealing with another problem — homelessness — in a way that doesn’t help the situation, as a pretext to say, Now you’ve got to leave, for your own good.”
According to Steve Pyne, a wildfire historian, the rush to point fingers in the wake of a wildfire is typical. “The effort is always to find a rotten apple or two, instead of pointing out that the problem is the barrel,” he said. “We don’t want to deal with the systemic issue that is how we’re living on this particular landscape, which is prone to explosive fires. … You don’t want to stop the economic hub, so you deflect it to other issues.”
Indeed, in a world increasingly altered by climate change and minimally controlled development, the rush in L.A. to blame a population of vulnerable people for a phenomenon that challenges the very way we live on the land may be a sign of what’s to come.
The quick announcement of a cause for the L.A. fire stands in contrast to the hushed tone of fire departments’ investigations into the other massive wildfires that tore through California in 2017.
Coming after a long period of drought, last year’s wet winter nurtured an abundance of vegetation, which then dried out again with a summer of record-high temperatures. When seasonal winds picked up in the fall, the landscape turned to kindling. In northern California, six blazes that ignited on October 8 and 9 together burned through more than 200,000 acres, destroying more than 8,400 structures, and killing 44 people, according to Cal Fire.
The absence of seasonal rains in southern California by December exacerbated the problem. Within three days of the 422-acre Skirball fire’s ignition, four other wildfires broke out in southern California communities, including the Lilac fire, the Creek fire, the Rye fire, and the Thomas fire — which had at least two origin points and became the biggest in California’s history, burning 281,893 acres, destroying more than 1,000 structures, and killing two people. In January, rain poured onto hillsides stripped bare by Thomas, causing mudslides that killed 17 people.
The causes of the other 10 fires have not been announced. In many of the other cases, residents suspect power lines or other electric utility equipment to be the source of ignition. And even without an official determination of cause, the lawsuits have begun rolling in — including at least three filed by residents accusing Southern California Edison of starting the Thomas fire, and at least 15 suits representing more than 100 people filed against utility giant PG&E in northern California.
Cal Fire officials reported that they may never know what caused San Diego’s Lilac fire. “We’ve narrowed it down to a 1-square-foot area where it started, but we didn’t find anything,” Cal Fire San Diego unit Chief Tony Mecham said. “There was nothing there that we could tie to a heat source.”
“The lessons we’ve learned in the past is, to prematurely release a cause before the investigation is over with, somebody down the road, some attorney, is going to call you on it for rushing to judgement,” said Alan Carlson, a private consultant who retired as a deputy chief of Cal Fire in 2010 after working on wildfire investigations for decades. “The consequences of prematurely releasing a cause may cause you to not follow up on everything you should do and then come out with a different variation on how things happened.”
Gary White, a longtime wildfire investigator who now works for lawyers, estimated that an investigation into a fire like the Skirball could take weeks or months to complete. His ideal has always been to keep a lid on findings until they’re finalized.
“Frequently, public information officers, they’re trained to push out as much information to the press as they can. It happens sometimes that the [public information officer] knows something about the investigation and releases that information before the investigators want it out there,” said White.
Castillo told The Intercept, inaccurately, that the LAFD’s press release asserted that the cause findings were preliminary. When corrected, he said he thought it was “not at all” problematic that the press release failed to mention the preliminary status and that he felt confident the release was accurate, based on the information they had at the time. “They’re all run past me before they’re published,” he said.
Three veteran wildfire investigators and members of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Wildland Fire Investigation Subcommittee said that wildfires caused by homeless encampments are not unheard of; they also were each able to recall an instance in which a public information officer had prematurely released information about a fire’s origin that turned out to be wrong.
Carlson said, “It wouldn’t be unusual for somebody to mention they believed it to be a homeless encampment cooking fire and then later finding out they really couldn’t prove that.”
A recent example of that kind of error dates back to December 2016, when two teenagers were charged with starting a massive wildfire that killed 14 people as it spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into two Tennessee resort towns. In that case, a hiker with a GoPro camera filmed the teens lighting matches and tossing them on the ground as they traveled the Chimney Tops trail. A headline in the U.K.’s Daily Mail read, “Teens who started Tennessee wildfires could be JAILED FOR LIFE.” Locals demanded the teens be charged as adults.
But the area happened to be in the midst of a historic drought, and winds that week were wild. Ultimately, it was determined that, although the teens might have been linked to the fire’s ignition in the park, they could not be blamed for its spread to the nearby towns.
When charges do stick, they come with penalties. In 2003, first-time deer hunter Sergio Martinez got lost in the woods and was later found dehydrated and delirious. For starting two small signal fires that turned into the second-largest wildfire in California history, Martinez was sent to a halfway house for six months, and forced to pay fines and complete community service. Another California man served two years in prison for starting a 2004 wildfire when his riding lawnmower hit a rock. Fire agencies at the time had warned that mowing could be dangerous.
More egregiously, last fall, a series of articles published by Breitbart News blamed the northern California fires on an undocumented homeless immigrant, based on no evidence at all. In a news conference, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano denied that Jesus Gonzalez had anything to do with the wildfires — he was arrested for starting a small fire, which was quickly extinguished. But the Breitbart article provided an opportunity for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to link sanctuary policies to wildfires. “Once again, a non-cooperative jurisdiction has left their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes,” ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said in a statement, adding that the agency had lodged detainers against Gonzalez in the past after four previous arrests and was not notified when Sonoma County released him. “This is especially troubling in light of the massive wildfires already devastating the region. … The residents of Sonoma County, and the state of California, deserve better than policies that expose them to avoidable dangers.”
Asked how important he considers managing homeless encampment cooking fires to be as a tactic of wildfire prevention, Bill Stewart, a wildfire researcher at University of California Berkeley, said, “I don’t think about it. Any type of small outdoor cooking issue is going to be a problem. The homeless encampments are not a huge piece of the problem.” He added that if any tactic should be used, it could be to “get people educated so they don’t try to hide from the police by doing it behind shrubs. Do it on the pavement.”
He said California’s wildfire problem is more attributable to the housing choices of the rich. “Often, very affluent people like to live in areas high up in the hills of Los Angeles so they can see the ocean and be surrounded by wildlife habitat.” He sees no easy answer for communities that “live in a bed of kindling.”
In a healthy forest, wildfires would occur periodically, clearing away underbrush that would otherwise act as fuel. Researchers have pointed to controlled burns as a potential tool for preventing sprawling fires, and agencies like Cal Fire have faced criticism for failing to devote sufficient resources to that kind of prevention. But in many areas, allowing fires to burn has become impossible because of the need to protect properties that have increasingly sprawled into previously wild areas. Across California, over the last 30 years, although the number of wildfires annually has decreased, the overall acreage burned has increased — fires have become more intense and harder to put out.
Hilly and populated areas like Bel Air present a particular challenge, according to Stewart. Even cutting down the dried-out shrubs and brush that fuel fires risks mudslides and erosion. And he isn’t optimistic about getting people to move out of the line of fire.
“You’ve got to accept that you’re going to have these explosive fires and nothing is going to stop them. You’ve got to shape these communities to accept the character of these fires,” said Pyne. “The war mentality that we’ll overcome force with counterforce is just fallible, and you need to do it, but it’s not getting at the fundamentals.”
Climate change is expected to only exacerbate the conditions that cause wildfires. Attributing a single wildfire or flood to climate change is complex, but scientists have linked California’s drought conditions to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and researchers are studying its impact on the winds that fuel the fires. A study from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University predicted that both intense flooding and extreme drought could increase in California by 50 percent by the end of the century.
There are parallels between California’s wildfire crisis and its housing and homelessness crisis. Fueling the homelessness problem is the same dramatically increasing housing prices that have helped drive people further into previously wild areas. According to the California Housing Partnership Corporation, median rent in L.A. County increased 32 percent between 2000 and 2015, with median income decreasing slightly. The organization has estimated that the county needs 551,807 affordable units in order to meet its lowest-income residents’ needs.
And, across the state, the issue of homelessness is only worsened by the fires. An analysis by Zillow for The Guardian indicated that between last September and October, Sonoma County rental prices rose 36 percent, and, in Napa, 23 percent. The city of Santa Rosa, which had already declared a state of emergency the previous year ago due to the homelessness crisis, lost 5 percent of its housing. According to BuzzFeed, some displaced immigrants camped on the beach as they waited for wildfire evacuation orders to be lifted, preferring to sleep outside rather than approach a shelter, where they feared they could be met by immigration enforcement officers.
“There is a clear dynamic that has occurred where, as a result of criminalization and enforcement of laws that are disproportionately enforced against homeless and houseless individuals, residents who are unhoused would rather be in this area where there’s less likelihood of them to being seen,” said Ares. “If the city wasn’t as intense around enforcement, then people would be in areas where they could be served. They can’t be served if they’re not found. They can’t be found if they’re trying to escape being arrested and being cited.”
Still, as the homeless population has increased, some California communities have coped in part by evicting homeless encampments. In Orange County last month, after complaints from neighbors, officials began clearing out an encampment of hundreds on the banks of the Santa Ana River in Anaheim. But the city has nowhere for them to go. There are two homeless people for every free shelter bed in the area.
In Los Angeles County, the homeless population has increased by 20 percent since 2009, while the number of shelter beds has decreased by 11 percent. But Ares said the problem is gentrification more than a lack of shelter beds. He’s encouraged by successful ballot initiatives that have forced elected officials to put funding into affordable housing and shift away from a tactic of citations, arrests, and encampment evictions. But he says the shift in rhetoric has not meant the end of criminalization. A study by Million Dollar Hoods showed that the annual number of arrests of homeless people in L.A. rose by 37 percent between 2011 and 2016, and continued to creep up in 2017.
According to Miner, the Neighborhood Council vice president, the community of Bel Air-Beverly Crest has long been concerned about a particular homeless encampment in a canyon outside the area impacted by the Skirball fire. She said she and others had suspected there were more. “There’s people hiding in these hills. Without seeing anything, you just knew it,” she said, noting that she’s also concerned about Airbnb renters who don’t understand the area’s fire vulnerabilities. “If these encampments are allowed to happen in the hills, then this is bound to happen, and it did.”
The day after the LAFD announced its finding that the fire was started by the homeless, L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who has worked closely with Miner on several initiatives, invoked emergency provisions of the city code in order to expedite a motion stating, “Encampments are illegal in the hillsides, and camp fires are prohibited in these areas. The City needs the ability to aggressively enforce these laws on land owned by the City of Los Angeles.” The motion called for a report that would identify encampments in the hills and include a plan to prevent trespass.
Soon after the new year, the fire department counted 191 encampments in fire-prone areas of the county. Property owners will receive a notification in the mail if an encampment is on their land. For encampments identified on city land, the L.A. police, sanitation, and Homeless Services Authority will be alerted.
“We want those people in these [fire] zones to voluntarily move,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told the L.A Times. “This is a public safety issue; this is a trespassing issue.”
In another interview with the L.A. Times, Mayor Garcetti cautioned that given the topography of Los Angeles it will never be possible to detect every homeless person trespassing in a fire zone. “Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents,” he said, “you can never get to zero risk.”