Bonin, LAFD, LAPD, Park Rangers, Task Force Taking Decisive Action
By FRANCES SHARPE | Editor-in-Chief
A fire that burned about 2.5 acres of hillside brush below the Via de las Olas bluffs between Swarthmore Avenue and Friends Street on Sunday, Nov. 8 was started by homeless individuals who were burning trash, according to Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Battalion 9 Chief Antoine McKnight.
“They tried to stomp it out, but it got out of their control,” McKnight told the Palisadian-Post from the command post on Pacific Coast Highway between Chautauqua Boulevard and Temescal Canyon Road.
Just last month on Oct. 7, LAFD authorities joined Councilmember Mike Bonin and the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness (PPTFH) only a few hundred feet away from Sunday’s brush fire for the installation of new signs that say: “Restricted Entry: Trespassing and Loitering Forbidden By Law.”
The signs posted at Temescal and PCH were intended to help avoid scenarios such as the one that unfolded Sunday morning.
On the Post’s Facebook page, Mark Englekirk wrote, “Just like a ‘gun-free zone,’ putting up no trespassing signs is not going to make this a ‘homeless-free zone.’”
Residents near the Via de las Olas bluffs awoke a little after 3 a.m. to the smell of smoke, the sounds of fire trucks and the whirring of four water-dropping helicopters.
“I smelled the smoke,” said Oliver Gruner who lives near the bluffs. “I came out and you could see the flames.”
Roger and Michelle Potash, who have lived on the bluffs since 1981, heard the helicopters at about 4 a.m.
“At first, we assumed the helicopters were looking for a burglary suspect so we didn’t get up,” Roger told the Post. “But when we did get up, we could see the flames coming up over the hillside. It was kind of scary for a while.”
To show their support for the 104 firefighters, including those from Stations 23 and 69, who were battling the brush fire in front of their home, the Potash couple went to the Village at about 6 a.m. and got several containers of coffee and set them out where firefighters could grab a cup.
“They deserve it,” Roger said.
For nearby residents Ron Mass and his son Oliver (Oliver was a summer intern at the Post), the helicopters “kept us up all night.”
Many neighbors repeated that same statement as they watched from the bluffs as LAFD and LA County Fire Department firefighters attacked the blaze from above and from PCH below.
Battalion 9 Chief McKnight told the Post, “To fight a brush fire, we form a ‘V’ pattern. We have two flanks—alpha on the left and zulu on the right.”
The two flanks carve out lines through the brush that act as barriers in an effort to contain the fire.
An LA County Fire Department Camp Crew handled the rough work of clearing the dense brush in the steep terrain using hand tools, including saws and pick axes.
From above on Via de las Olas, crews first watered the lines. “Then we’ll spread foam on them,” Station 23 Capt. Mark Gozawa, who was working with the Station 19 crew on Sunday, explained.
Approximately three and a half hours after the fire began, LAFD called the brusher a knockdown with only a few hotspots remaining. No structures were threatened and no injuries were reported.
McKnight told the Post LAFD would remain on the scene throughout the day, overnight and into the next day to prevent any flare-ups.
SPARKING OUTRAGE, ACTION
The fire also sparked outrage among residents, many of whom gathered on the bluffs to express their frustration about what they said is an increased fire danger due to a growing number of people camping illegally in the hillsides in Pacific Palisades.
This is despite stepped-up efforts by LAPD officers to cite people for illegal camping on the beach and in the hillsides.
“We need enforcement,” Palisades resident Gene Rink, who is an LA County firefighter, told the Post. Rink emphasized that he was speaking solely as a Palisades resident and not as a representative of the fire department.
Nearby resident Chris Spitz, President of the Pacific Palisades Community Council (PPCC), and Marquez Knolls resident Haldis Toppel fired off emails to Councilmember Mike Bonin demanding solutions to the problem.
“The homeless, breaking the law, are getting more consideration than the law-abiding residents suffering from their actions. Enforcement and penalties are needed that are a deterrent, not merely an inconvenience or ‘cost of doing business,’” Toppel wrote.
Bonin issued a written statement on Sunday in response to the morning’s fire.
(See Bonin’s full statement from Sunday, Nov. 8 here.)
Bonin issued a written statement on Monday detailing actions to be taken immediately.
“I take [Sunday’s] incident extremely seriously,” said Bonin who outlined immediate actions LAPD will be taking to “better protect our community.”
Starting immediately, LAPD will be taking aerial images to identify where illegal camping is taking place, conducting twice-daily patrols of these areas and distributing fliers warning of increased enforcement efforts. LAPD West division’s transient detail will also increase its focus on these areas, according to Bonin.
“In addition to these immediate actions by LAPD, I am also working with LAFD Deputy Chief Butler, the Pacific Palisades Homelessness Task Force, park rangers and private security to develop an even more robust system to patrol and keep these areas clear,” Bonin added.
(See Bonin’s full statement from Monday, Nov. 9 here.)
Maryam Zar, Chair of the PPTFH, issued a statement Sunday, saying, “I had reached out to [Battalion Chief] Antoine McKnight and [Asst.] Chief [Patrick] Butler yesterday, Nov. 7, to come together to craft a plan for the enforcement of newly installed “Restricted Entry, High Fire Hazard Severity Zones” [signs]. The events of this morning serve to make that call for action even more urgent.”
Zar added that new “Restricted Entry” signage is scheduled to be installed at the Via De La Paz and Swarthmore Bluffs this Thursday, Nov. 12.
“Please be assured that we are being proactive, and working with both city and private entities to ensure the safety and security of Palisadians, to the extent that it applies to the work of the PPTFH,” Zar added.
(See Zar’s full statement here.)
LAFD’s Butler told the Post, “The fire department has been working and addressing these issues with other agencies for a while. These areas are not safe to be accessed and there will be more [Restricted Entry] signs going up. These signs provide law enforcement and park rangers with more tools to enforce the law.”
Butler added that the fire danger is not only a risk to the people who own homes on the bluffs but also to any individuals who may be camping in the hillside areas. Ensuring public safety for all individuals is “central to our mission,” Butler said.
As the community struggles to find permanent solutions, Via de las Olas residents were overwhelmingly grateful to firefighters for protecting their homes on Sunday.
Marcus Greene, 11, showed his support by sporting a firefighter uniform at the scene.
“He’s very into the guys at Station 69,” said Marcus’ dad.
SECOND BRUSH FIRE HITS VIA DE LAS OLAS
By ALEXANDRIA BORDAS | Reporter
Merely two days after a raging fire started by homeless individuals engulfed 2.5 acres of the hillside below the Via de las Olas bluffs, a second fire in the same area started shortly before noon and burned less than an acre of brush on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
The 15500 block of Via de las Olas was overwhelmed with smoke and water as 81 firefighters and three helicopters from the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) fought the fire for over an hour until the fire was extinguished.
“The fire was in the same spot as last time and was rekindled due to strong winds,” said firefighter Dave Arellano from Station 37, which was called in for support.
LAFD Fire Inspector John Novela was scouting the area earlier in the day to see which areas would be best to install “no illegal camping” signs when he saw smoke and bright flames.
“I was walking around the bluff perimeter and all of a sudden I saw the brush going up in flames. There was heavy smoke drifting across the street toward the houses,” Novela told the Palisadian-Post on scene. “I called the dispatcher to report the fire and then checked to make sure residents were okay.”
Ironically, just before that, Novela had been meeting at Station 69 with LAFD Asst. Chief Patrick Butler, Battalion 9 Chief Antoine McKnight, Sharon Shapiro from Councilmember Mike Bonin’s office and Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness Chair Maryam Zar to discuss strategies to prevent this from happening again.
Following the planning meeting, Zar drove to the hillside to see the fire and told the Post, “They’ve come up with a great plan (to prevent future fires).”
Palisadian resident George Raetz was in his study when he heard helicopters flying overhead and said his thoughts immediately jumped to the homeless people living in the area below.
“There should be consequences for them loitering and illegally burning things,” Raetz told the Post.
Residents in surrounding houses could be seen running out their front doors covering their faces.
Susan MeInerney, who lives in the area, said she and her neighbors have had their cars loaded with passports, photo albums and other personal items since Sunday in case they needed to evacuate.
Roger Potash was walking down the hillside inspecting the damage from Sunday’s fire when he saw smoke.
“I saw a little white smoke at the base of a tree and then all of a sudden it was a flame. I ran up the hill and yelled ‘9-1-1’ because I didn’t have my phone with me,” said Potash, who is a resident of Via de las Olas.
Rick Bota has been a resident of the Palisades for 20 years and was driving around the bluffs when he noticed the fire.
“We’re really lucky these are the only two fires we’ve had this year, what with the droughts and everything,” Bota told the Post. “There are encampments all over this area with people living without restrictions. We need enforcement.”
Additional reporting by Dayna Drum and Frances Sharpe
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