Fire That Burned Through Bel-Air Started at a Nearby Homeless Encampment

Firefighters try to save a home in Bel-Air. Photo: Genaro Molina/LA Times via Getty Images

A devastating wildfire that ripped through Bel-Air, burning six homes and 400 acres, began at a homeless encampment near a freeway underpass, the Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday.

Fire officials said they found the encampment, which showed signs of people cooking and sleeping in the area, just hours after the blaze ignited at 5 a.m. last Wednesday. The fire had destroyed most of the site, which had been there for years, but investigators were able to determine that the fire was not set deliberately.

It was, rather, one of the more than 100 wildfires in California set every year by illegal open fires. A fraction of those, officials said, are set by homeless people cooking or trying to stay warm.

Homelessness in Los Angeles has surged in recent years, with the most recent count, conducted in May, putting the population at 58,000. That’s a 23 percent increase over 2016. Experts blame the increase on rising rents and stagnant wages. An unsustainable 30 percent of households in Los Angeles and Orange Counties pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“I am deeply concerned that over the next few years we will continue to be overwhelmed by people for whom rents are simply unsustainable,” Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila Kuehl said earlier this year.

In Bel-Air, residents had long worried that the hillside encampments would lead to a disaster. “We knew it was only going to be a matter of time before something horrible happened,” Nickie Miner, of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, told the L.A. Times.

Officials said a fire-prevention task force is being established to work on ways to prevent future wildfires. Among the moves they will consider are mandatory evacuations of homeless encampments in high-risk areas during fire season and a program to educate the homeless on fire prevention.

On a grander scale, Los Angeles is hoping to decrease the city’s homeless population by building more housing. Two separate ballot measures were approved over the past year that dedicate billions of public dollars to building new permanent housing and providing rent subsidies and other services. Now, city officials just have to find places to build.

Fire That Burned Bel-Air Started at a Homeless Encampment