When December’s Creek Fire ripped across the canyons and foothills near the San Fernando Valley city of Sylmar, it destroyed dozens of homes and scorched 15,000 acres.

It also displaced many homeless people who have used the area’s thick brush and steep canyons to carve out a small network of hidden encampments.

You don’t have to hike too far off the paved roads and horse trails around Tujunga-Sunland north of Los Angeles to find them. You just have to know where to look.

Homeless outreach workers visit a homeless camp in the Tujunga-Sunland area near Sylmar.
Homeless outreach workers visit a homeless camp in the Tujunga-Sunland area near Sylmar. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

“Just around the corner you can see where the brush provides a little bit of coverage over there,” says Victor Hinderliter of the Los Angeles County Homeless Authority, as he wends his way through thickets of bone-dry bamboo and chaparral with a crew of outreach workers.

Eric Montoya of L.A. Family Housing pushes through the brush to a clearing below the burn zone of the Creek Fire.

“It came to the other side of this mountain right here. There’s a little gully in between, so it did get pretty close,” says Montoya.

Homeless outreach workers from L.A. County hike the Tujunga-Sunland area near Sylmar looking for homeless camps. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

He’s hoping to find a guy named Russell. Montoya lost track of him after the Creek Fire and wants to see if he’s OK. The encampment is here. Russell isn’t. Montoya thinks he probably took off when the fire got close.

“Might be the reason why things are thrown around everywhere, too. Maybe he was getting ready to evacuate.”

Among the belongings left behind: a tent, bike parts, piles of clothing, food and a red fire extinguisher.

“I’ve come up here when he’s been cooking and he’s really careful about it. He’s got a little (fire) pit there with a cover over it, so that embers won’t fly away,” says Montoya. “He really doesn’t want a fire starting in his encampment. Russell is really safe about how and when he uses fire.”

A fire extinguisher is among the belongings left behind in an apparently abandoned homeless encampment. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Arson investigators say a cooking fire at another homeless encampment in the foothills above Bel Air was responsible for starting last month’s Skirball Fire.

That blaze damaged or destroyed 18 homes in one of L.A.’s most upscale communities.

In response, the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council vowed to put more pressure on authorities to locate and clear out homeless encampments when fire danger is high. But the council’s president, Robin Greenberg, says there’s also a great deal of sympathy in the community for their homeless neighbors.

“They didn’t want, we didn’t want to have a fire,” says Greenberg. “They were just hungry and they were just eating, that’s all they were doing, on a cold morning. (But) I do believe that identifying the locations of the encampments in high fire danger would be to everyone’s best interest. Protecting them, too, as well as us.”

Greenberg says the Bel Air council plans to convene a town hall meeting on the issue sometime in late January.

The L.A. County Homeless Authority says it plans to step up its cooperation with law enforcement and other agencies to help reduce the number of wildland homeless camps and steer people to shelters and other services.

A camp fire at a homeless encampment in the Tujunga-Sunland area near Sylmar. The residents say they don’t start cooking fires when fire danger is high and they always keep buckets of water nearby. (Steven Cuevas/KQED )

“If a fire starts, you are in danger. You are in an area that can quickly catch fire (and) you can wake up surrounded,” says Victor Hinderliter of the L.A. County Homeless Authority. “We need to move you out for your own safety.”

Usually at this time of year, L.A.’s homeless outreach teams are out in the washes and creek beds warning of winter rains and freezing temperatures and urging people to at least get out of harm’s way and into a temporary winter shelter. Now they plan to do something similar when fire danger is high.

“But if you’re not willing to move, we’re not an enforcement agency,” Hinderliter says. “We’re not in the business of forcing anyone to do anything, so let’s talk about how you can be safe up here.”

At another Tujunga encampment home to about half a dozen people, a cat on a leash and a couple of strapping pit bulls, there’s a fire pit for cooking. But those living there say they don’t use it when winds are whipping through the canyons. They keep buckets of water nearby when they do use the pit.

“I did have the fire department tell me to put out my fire before,” says Robert Norman. “It was not windy like this, but they could see the smoke from the freeway and they were right on me.”

Norman moved to this encampment after another he was in got burned out by the Creek Fire.

“I saw the fire coming down and I ended up fighting the fire that was threatening (some homes) back there for three days,” says Norman.

Norman also understands people have legitimate concerns about people like him living in wildland places like this.

“The homeowners say, ‘Well, we’re scared of fire. That’s why you guys need to leave.’ And I said, ‘You know, I’ll be the first one to be standing in line to fight a fire to protect your house.’ That’s the level of concern and respect I have for people around here.”

Homeless Encampments Draw Scrutiny in Aftermath of Destructive L.A. Wildfires 2 January,2018Steven Cuevas

  • Abby

    This article is pure bs. It is not okay for homeless people to live in the wash, period! They should be removed – not trained in how to be safer from fire, or depended on to be on the front lines if a fire starts. Quoting the guy that lives in the wash saying he has respect for the people who live around there is like reading a fantasy science fiction story. I’m going to make an educated guess that the fire extinguisher, and other items in that photo, are stolen goods. The homeless and criminal population living in the wash has been a problem for years. It’s not only dangerous in terms of fire, it is an environmental disaster and health hazard, as we saw with the many buckets of feces, and drug paraphernalia that the local community cleaned out a couple of years ago. This extremely unfortunate situation should be given much more of a
    realistic approach to the problem than is described in this article.

  • BiffBueno

    The author of this article should leave his cozy Pasadena home and come to Sunland Tajunga and talk to the residents affected directly by the homeless drug addicts and meth heads that live in the wildlife corridor. They’ve all been offered help, housing, rehab, counseling. 98% of them turn it down.

    These people would rather be on drugs than clean. They destroy property values, start fires, are complete slobs, defacate and urinate in the wilderness, and leave trash and drug paraphernalia everywhere. Many are dangerous. A few have killed people in the wash in S/T, and bodies have been found several times.

    The homeless have no business camping in the wilderness areas. They are not “the first line of defense” in a fire, and they have no respect for the homeowners, and ending the article with that line is a JOKE. If they did, they wouldn’t be there, they’d accept the help that’s been offered numerous times.

    Shame on you Steve Cuevas for posting a garbage article that is so “pro homeless” in how this situation is portrayed. Live with them in YOUR backyard, and the article would be vastly different.

    • August

      Your home is next; can’t wait to watch it go up in flames.

      • BiffBueno

        Well aren’t you a piece of crap.

        • August

          I want the homeless housed…you don’t.

          • BiffBueno

            No chump. Show me where I said that, because I never did. What you fail to grasp is that many of the homeless don’t WANT to be housed. During the last wash cleanup, over 50 encampments were displaced. ALL were offered housing, rehab, job training and more. TWO accepted the help. TWO people out of over 50 encampments.

          • August

            The homeless do not want to be warehoused in prison-like hell-hole mandatory “Jesus Saves” shelters (f..k that dirty filthy evil fa..ot Jesus), do not want ridiculous treatment for ailments they do not have, and they want REAL CAREER/TRADE TRAINING for living-wage jobs

          • BiffBueno

            and if you want them housed, post your address and we’ll bring a few over.

  • August

    How about IMMEDIATE DISABILITY BENEFITS for the homeless, and IMMEDIATE REGULAR HOUSING?

    NO MORE SEVEN MILLION DOLLAR MURRAYS…a homeless DISABLED veteran, brutally tortured and kept homeless by the va AND ITS poverty pimps…spending millions on him… still dying on the streets homeless, never housed.

Author

Steven Cuevas

Steven is the California Report’s Los Angeles bureau chief.

He reports on an array of issues across the Southland, from immigration and regional politics to religion, the performing arts and pop culture.

Prior to joining KQED in 2012, Steven covered Inland southern California for KPCC in Pasadena. He also helped establish the first newsroom at KUT in Austin, Texas where he was a general assignment reporter.

Steven has received numerous awards for his reporting including an RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting in addition to awards from the LA Press Club, the Associated Press and the Society for Professional Journalists.

Steven grew up in and around San Francisco and now lives in Pasadena just a short jog from the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.

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