A New and Critical Fire Danger in Southern California: The Homeless
No, the Supreme Court did not say people must be allowed cookstoves in tents on the sidewalk: don't believe lying politicians
May 22, 2021
May 17, 2021 The Los Angeles Fire Department responds to an average of 24 homeless-related fires a day, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times. That's two dozen emergencies every day. LAFD classifies one third of those fires as arson. The rest of the fires are caused by outdoor cookstoves or other unsafe and unpermitted use of flames.
These fires cause death and a great deal of damage. 41 homeless people have been killed by them since 2015 and they have caused an estimated $185 million in property damage since 2017, according to the LA Times. An illicit cookstove at a homeless encampment in the Sepulveda Pass caused the infamous Skirball wildfire in 2017, which burned 422 acres, destroyed six houses and damaged twice that many. Lives were destroyed. Hundreds were evacuated. Needless to say, all of these fires consumed fire department resources and put firefighter's lives in danger.
Today, a wildfire rages out of control in Topanga and Pacific Palisades, with at least 1,350 acres burned as of Sunday afternoon. Hundreds of homes have been evacuated. The cause is suspected as arson. A week before the fire started, local newspapers noted the activity of a known arsonist on probation who was living in the Palisades bluffs. The volunteer Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness had alerted authorities to numerous fire pits the convicted arsonist had built in the chaparral. Police, fire, and probation authorities refused to do anything about this individual.
Governor Newsom likes to blame climate change for the wildfires in California. Climate change may or may not provide some secondary causation of the state's wildfires. Solid proof is thin. But there is ample proof that a past and probable future cause of wildfires will be the region's extremely populous and largely mentally ill vagrant population, a population that continues to grow as state authorities seek to reduce prison sentences and release convicts who often end up on the streets. Even if only a few of the homeless are arsonists, it only takes one person to start a large, destructive, and deadly fire. Meanwhile, many of the rest of the 'homeless' population engage in patently unsafe cooking and heating with open flames and unpermitted cookstoves.
At the same time that it becomes clear the vagrant, scofflaw population is one enormous fire hazard, officials at all levels either dismiss the hazard or claim, untruthfully, that there is nothing they can do about it. Jose "Che" Ramirez, the deputy mayor for city homelessness initiatives, claims in the LA Times article that "court injunctions have significantly limited the City's legal right to dismantle unsafe structures, or enter encampments to remove the hazardous items causing many of these fires.
This is completely untrue. The main court case to which Ramirez refers, Martin v. Boise, actually specifically allows local authorities to outlaw camping involving the erection of physical structures. It even allows cities to outlaw sleeping in public in certain areas and at certain times. In addition, the ruling does not, in any way, shape, or form prevent local authorities from enforcing ordinances about fire or even criminalizing the use of fire in public places. The theory by which the Ninth Circuit ruled on the case was that sleeping is a natural, unavoidable human activity and it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to criminalize it. This theory would not be applied to using a cookstove or building a campfire, which are not unavoidable human activities.
Criminalization of unsafe fires would allow authorities to stop this dangerous activity. It would allow our society to prevent deadly and destructive fires, including wildfires that rage out of control, sapping resources, lowering quality of life , and endangering the lives of both humans and animals. There is no legal or moral reason preventing such legislation. Rather, what is lacking is the will to put a value on a peaceful and orderly society, one with an appropriate balance between one person's freedom and another's.