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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”