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Up in flames: Rising number of homeless fires threatens LA neighborhoods

What to Know

  • There were 13,909 homeless fires in Los Angeles in 2023, almost double the number of such fires in 2020, according to LAFD data.
  • Some of these fires are apparently caused by homeless people tapping into city electrical wires under the sidewalk, the I-Team found.
  • City officials confirmed that the wires can cause explosions if they’re tampered with.

Just before 10 one recent morning, an LA neighborhood was rocked by loud explosions that residents say sounded like bombs going off.

“There were two huge explosions, and when I looked out my apartment window I saw plumes of black smoke,” said Jeanne Rice, who lives around the corner from a homeless encampment at Wilton Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.

Those plumes of smoke and fire were coming from a homeless tent that had exploded into a ball of fire, destroying the tent and other tents around it.

The I-Team found this was just one of several encampment fires recently in this neighborhood dotted by new apartment and condo buildings.

“We have fire after fire after fire, and now they’re putting us in danger. We’re all in danger in this neighborhood,” said resident Levi Freeman.

LA Fire Department data for the last five calendar years, obtained by the I-Team, shows the number of fires related to homeless people has been steadily climbing. There were 13,909 homeless fires in 2023, almost double the number of such fires in 2020.

These fires usually start in or around homeless tents, but often spread to nearby commercial or apartment buildings, sometimes injuring and, in rare cases, killing people.

“I fear for my safety,” said Hollywood resident and realtor Levi Freeman. “A tent fire could set other buildings ablaze and then go to the next building if they can’t get here fast enough.”

The I-Team discovered that some of these encampment fires are apparently caused by homeless people tapping into city electrical wires under the sidewalk, meant to bring power to streetlights, and diverting the electricity into their tents.

“This is a huge problem,” said Jeanne Rice, pointing to a clump of charred wires under the sidewalk next to where the tent fire erupted near her apartment.

A few yards away, near where another tent fire recently burned, the I-Team spotted a household power strip was jerry-rigged into the electrical wires under the sidewalk.

City officials confirmed that the wires can cause explosions if they’re tampered with.

“Electrical systems eventually generate heat,” said Miguel Sangalang, of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Lighting.

“It can” cause a fire if the city’s electrical wires are tampered with, Sangalang told the I-Team.

“We can’t even walk around the neighborhood safely anymore,” said Jeanne Rice, who witnessed that recent tent fire at the corner of Wilton and Hollywood.

A week after the fire, one business bought large planters with cacti in them and place them on sidewalk to prevent homeless people from pitching tents.

“People are literally dying in the streets, in tents burning down around them,” said Levi Freeman.

He and other residents have been emailing Mayor Karen Bass, Gov. Gavin Newsom and their City Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez, saying the increase in tents fires is an “absolute crisis” and urging them remove tents from the sidewalks.

“Take them away!” said Levi Freeman. “I am so tired about all the inaction of our politicians here.”

That doesn’t seem likely to happen soon.

In a statement to NBC4, a spokesperson for city councilman Soto-Martinez said, “This encampment is one of our top priorities… and in a district with just 400 interim housing beds for over 3,000 people living on the streets, we have to continue working to find creative short and long-term solutions for residents impacted by the homelessness crisis.”


Source: NBC Los Angeles

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