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LA officials increasing outreach to homeless encampments in fire prone areas

A house is threatened by wildfire along Linda Flora Drive during the Skirball Fire in Los Angeles, California, December 6, 2017.
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A house is threatened by wildfire along Linda Flora Drive during the Skirball Fire in Los Angeles, California, December 6, 2017. The "Skirball" fire ignited before 5 a.m. (1300 GMT) and quickly engulfed some 50 acres, with forecasters predicting the 25-mile-per-hour winds could cause further spreading, threatening multi-million dollar homes and the acclaimed Getty Center museum.
Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images

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Officials in Los Angeles County are stepping up their outreach efforts to homeless encampments after learning the cause of the Skirball Fire, which burned portions of the West Side last week.

The Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday that a cooking fire at a homeless encampment in the brush near Sepulveda and the 405 accidentally set off the fire. Now, officials from agencies that work with the homeless population pledged to place an increased emphasis on fire safety.

"With the recent fire dangers, which are really unprecedented, we made a particular effort to engage with those in areas that could be considered dangerous," said Tom Waldman, spokesman for the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. "So we weren't completely surprised but we're certainly going to step up our efforts in coordination with the county and the city."

Outreach teams and law enforcement from LAHSA, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and Los Angeles Police Department routinely visit encampments to warn people about inclement weather, Waldman said. 

"Now we're going to do it more around fire conditions," he said. 

Waldman said the encampment associated with the Skirball Fire was not visited, because officials were not aware it was there—it was partially hidden, he said, and residents had not reported it. 

The fire, which broke out last week, destroyed six homes and burned more than 400 acres. 

More than 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. The Skirball Fire was the first officials could recall in Los Angeles County to originate from a homeless encampment. 

But officials are concerned by the sheer number of homeless encampments that have cropped up in areas with high fire risk. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Chief Jim Hellmold said L.A. County has seen a growth in homelessness, particularly in remote areas.

"Along the riverbed, under freeways, and in remote, rural areas, and that's where this issue of heavy, dry vegetation becomes an issue," Hellmold said.

Sheriff's teams, he said, are now increasing their outreach to fire-prone areas in the county, and if there's an imminent threat to safety, evacuate encampments.

Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief John Sherman, the commanding officer in the San Fernando Valley said LAPD officers will also continue to target brush-filled areas in the wake of the fire. The department's HOPE units, which are dedicated to homeless issues, routinely visit encampments, he said, as do off-road motorcycle units. 

"We tell them they can't be cooking here in the brush, you need to be cautious," he said. "It's obviously quite challenging with all the encampments we have in wooded areas. We do warn them."

Sherman said even after conditions change and fire risks subside, new safety issues crop up.

"After fires, come floods," he said.