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LA will send police to remove homeless residents from high-risk fire zones

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New rules are aimed at preventing wildfires and saving lives

US-FIRE-CALIFORNIA-VENTURA
A helicopter does a water drop beside a luxury house after the Skirball wildfire swept through the exclusive enclave of Bel Air in December 2017. The fire was later determined to be sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

With the threat of wildfires looming ahead of Santa Ana wind season, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved new rules today that will send police officers to encampments in hillside areas to “remove” homeless residents.

Officials say the rules are aimed at preventing wildfires and protecting the lives of homeless residents.

“You have the threat of fires that can be potentially set off by fire encampments,” says Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino. “It’s a threat to private property as well as public property.”

The rules apply to areas with “significant fire hazards,” including the Santa Monica Mountains and Griffith Park, along with large swaths of the San Fernando Valley and Northeast Los Angeles. CalFire and the Los Angeles Fire Department map those areas, officially called Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, based on vegetation, terrain, and other factors.

In those zones, Los Angeles Police Department officers will go out to encampments on Red Flag days, and homeless residents who refuse to relocate will be arrested. Otherwise, outreach workers with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will help place them into emergency shelters.

Under the new ordinance, on days when Red Flag warnings are not in effect, LAHSA will be responsible for doing “proactive” outreach. That will include connecting residents to services and housing opportunities.

“Normally [we] would not support moving homeless individuals, however in this case, it’s making sure their lives are protected,” said Nathaniel Vergow, who oversees the authority’s outreach teams.

LAHSA, police, firefighters, and the city’s sanitation department will also put together a schedule to do clean-ups around encampments in the zone to “mitigate any potential increased fire risk.”

In December 2017, a cooking fire at a homeless encampment in a brushy area near where Sepulveda Boulevard crosses under the 405 ignited a blaze that torched 422 acres, destroying a half dozen homes.

The Los Angeles Fire Department estimates there are 47 homeless encampments in the high fire-risk zones. That’s based on a “windshield” survey it conducts in January and August, when firefighters drive around the zone and count the number of encampments they spot.

Right now, homeless residents only know they might be in the zones if a sign is posted, says assistant city attorney Julie Raffish.

In the past, city code required the city to post signs every 600 feet along property boundaries within the zone, warning people not to trespass. But the zone has a large footprint and includes rugged areas that make posting the signs everywhere “unrealistic,” according to a motion from Los Angeles City Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield and Monica Rodriguez.

In the past, the LAPD did not go into these areas to issue citations, says Tran Le, a spokesperson for Rodriguez.

People who refuse to relocate will now face a $1,000 fine and or up to six months in jail, according to the city attorney’s office.

“This is not a homelessness ordinance,” says Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian. “It’s an effort to move people out who are violating the law... being homeless does not give you license to violate the law.”