String of Fires Triggers Homeless Camps’ Clearance

Fire camp inmates mop up after the Friday morning fire in Tuna Canyon on Nov. 13.

A group of city officials, representatives from both the sheriff’s and fire departments, and homeless outreach experts met at around 11 a.m. and hiked through Tuna Canyon on Friday, Nov. 13—mere hours after a blaze traced to a homeless encampment was extinguished in exactly the same spot. LA County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a homeless man in connection to Friday’s fire on charges of arson.

Friday’s fire, which started around 5 a.m. and prompted the closure of a portion of PCH, was not the first of its kind. So far this year, there have been two other fires that have stemmed from the Tuna Canyon homeless encampments. Two of the three Tuna Canyon fires have started in the early hours of the morning. 

Neighborhood vigilance and calm winds kept the fire from destroying nearby houses, Public Safety Commission Chair Chris Frost said. “But the people along Las Tunas know they’re in the most susceptible area right now for fires. They sleep with one ear wide open all night long because they’re scared to death of what’s across the highway.”

Frost said that the camps are also a danger to the 15 or so individuals who live in it, not only because of the fire danger—Frost said he and the team even found candles in the camps, which are highly dangerous around dry brush—but also because it is a health hazard—a “virtual toilet,” as he described it. 

“Honestly, you have waste down there, trash, junk, rotted food—in my eyes, you had a perfect recipe for typhus, typhoid, tetanus, name ‘em all,” he said. It also creates a biohazard for the environment. “If you have a rainstorm and that wash starts to run, all of that stuff washes right down to the beach and into the ocean.” 

The homeless camps sit on several acres of private land. Susan Dueñas, the city’s public safety manager, said that “people have been living in Tuna Canyon forever,” adding, “It’s beautiful, you’re hidden, you feel like you’re kind of off the radar but still close enough to a store to get some food.”

Because the camps are on private land, authorities can legally remove the unhoused who live there on the grounds that they are trespassing. But first, they need something called a “letter of agency” from the property owner—and that has been difficult to get in the case of Tuna Canyon. A single property owner controls the whole area, but does not physically live there. When the fires started happening, he was out of the country, so it took some time to get that letter. 

Lacking it, sheriff’s deputies must navigate more nuanced laws and restrictions to find the grounds to address the camps, such as laws against illegal fires—which, of course, only apply if there is a visible fire. Due to the landmark Ninth District decision Martin v. Boise, homeless people cannot be forced to leave property if the municipality does not provide adequate services and shelter as an alternative. 

Each “letter of agency” expires yearly. Dueñas is currently creating a system to track all private properties “that are essentially open spaces” so the city can ensure that they have letters of agency on file. 

And that will be necessary, according to Dueñas, who thinks the homeless people who lived there will inevitably return: “It’s their home.” 

Dueñas described the cycle of homelessness as a “revolving door” that has become endemic in many coastal California cities. Many homeless people have mental health and substance abuse issues and, unless government policies change, the threshold for them to be hospitalized and receive psychiatric help is incredibly high. These difficulties are also complicated by the pandemic and rising unemployment. 

Dueñas estimated the Tuna Canyon encampments would be gone by the end of the week; their inhabitants were already given notice to leave. The city has employed a private company called Bio Socal which specializes in hazmat clean-ups and is borrowing heavy machinery from the public works department. That was why Friday’s meeting was in person: it was a multi-agency needs assessment for cleanup. 

Where are the 15 or so men and women who live in Tuna Canyon going to move? Some of them have been living in the area for a decade or more.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Dueñas said. 

Frost said that the city urgently needs to invest in something called an alternative sleeping location and a safe parking program, similar to what Laguna Beach has. Frost even called the creation of those two items his “number one goal” as a public safety commissioner. 

For now, he, Dueñas, numerous worried neighbors, county and city outreach workers, sheriff’s deputies, and fire officials have been working around the clock to fix the issue in time to avoid a more serious conflagration.