Firefighters in Southern California will be battling several major infernos (that have now destroyed over 1,000 structures) for weeks to come. The Thomas fire that’s consumed large swaths of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties could remain largely uncontained until Christmas, so that blaze is obviously consuming a great deal of attention from state and local officials. However, officials have managed to trace the path of the Skirball fire, which threatened major Los Angeles landmarks and destroyed Bel Air mansions last week, back to its origin. The resulting news has struck a more sobering note than expected.
As revealed by the Washington Post, the blaze ignited from a cooking flame at a homeless encampment located within a brush-filled canyon near the 405 freeway. Arson investigators found that the camp had largely been flattened by the fire and determined that the occupants had scattered on December 6 after the blaze ignited. Although the Post notes that the encampment had existed for “years,” fire officials told reporters that “they were unaware of the encampment’s existence,” as no calls to the location had previously been made to fire crews. The LA Times reports that the issue will likely make its way to the city council:
This “makes a tragic event even more tragic,” said Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes Bel-Air. “The saddest thing is that we have so many homeless people. And they are everywhere in the city. And that sometimes causes serious problems.”
Officials have also discussed establishing a task force to patrol such areas and enforce mandatory evacuations of encampments when “high fire risk” is present while educating about the risks of using open flames. However, this might be an insurmountable task, given the terrain in question:
“[G]iven the topography of … all the hills in our city, we could do that 24 hours a day and still miss a lot of people,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents, you can never get to zero risk. And I think it would be a mistake to think we could.”
While the Skirball fire has ultimately only destroyed 400 acres, it burned through numerous Bel Air estates, including James Murdoch’s $30 million property. That the fire began inadvertently — and investigators have stressed that the fire was “not set deliberately” — in a homeless encampment may force officials to shine light on an epidemic that often remains unspoken amid the city’s reputation for glitz and glamour.