Homeless camps are now banned in high-risk fire areas. But the uninhabited residents of Topanga Canyon want to stay
Shane Burroughs lives in his car. Most days he hangs out near a cluster of shops in Topanga Canyon, halfway between the San Fernando Valley and the beach. He has lived here for 33 years and everyone in the business knows him.
“All the people I love here, outside of my immediate family, are in this city. I’ve been here all my adult life, ”says Burroughs.
But now he is facing increasing pressure to leave.
That’s because homeowners here – and in other Southern California neighborhoods surrounded by dry bushes – fear their uninhabited neighbors could start a fire that would devastate their community.
Los Angeles County’s Board of Directors shares these concerns. That’s why they voted last month to ban homeless camps in high-risk fire-risk areas in unincorporated LA County. Now comes the hard work of moving people to these camps, including those who don’t want to go.
The neighbors organize
Sabine Niederberghaus has one of the riskiest properties in Topanga. The land that lies between your home and breathtaking ocean views is shaped like a bowl, giving any wildfire a direct shot at your home. In fact, the house that previously stood here burned down in the Topanga fire in 1993.
Niederberghaus bought the remaining empty property. Last July, wildfire was just a few miles from her home before the fire department put it out.
“So I decided to start a new initiative. And I said we all have to get together and we have to do something about it. Because we know where the fires come from, where they started, what the cause of the fire is, and we have to improve the situation, ”she says.
Starting in July, she held fire safety meetings for dozens of Topanga residents. They discussed their concerns about fires, including the risk of fire from people living in tents or cars in the canyons.
“I’m not saying the fires are caused by [the] Homeless or camp, ”she says. “I call it … irresponsible human behavior.”
Topanga city council member Carrie Carrier says preventing fire isn’t just important to protecting homes. When there is a fire, the homeless residents are in grave danger.
“If fast moving wildfire … comes through, it could theoretically go from one point in the canyon to another in a matter of hours. In the meantime, it would probably take us between five and seven hours to actually evacuate every single known resident of the canyon, ”she says. “So you can see where the homeless themselves are so extremely endangered if wildfire breaks through the area. And it literally puts their lives, I would say, most at risk because they have the least reliable means of being informed of a fire and evacuating in the event of a fire. “
Sheila Kuehl, LA County chief, whose Topanga district is a part, says she understands these fears and wants to help people in the gorge who have nowhere else to move to move. “That doesn’t mean they can’t still be homeless somewhere. It just means that they cannot be homeless in those zones, ”she says. “It’s just too dangerous for everyone.”
The new ban requires the Sheriff’s Department to camp, shelter, and move everyone in fire-prone areas of unincorporated LA County. The Sheriff’s Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment, but residents say they heard there has been more frequent visits to the homeless recently.
Shane Burroughs isn’t ready to leave yet. “Good luck. That will never happen,” he says. And he points out that fires start for many reasons.
“Always blame the homeless,” he says. “Look at the percentage of homeless fires caused compared to other things: accidents, people mufflers, people who ride dirt bikes, people who shoot.”
Burroughs says, if anything, the people who live outside are more familiar with forest fires.
“The homeless around you are your first line of defense because… they are the first people to find out what’s going on. And at least up here we tend to keep our lives up here and the lives of other people. It’s not in our interest to let something run amok, ”he says.
That doesn’t comfort the homeowners in Topanga. In addition, Kuehl is confident that most of the uninhabited residents are ready to move.
“I don’t know. It’s sticky and tough. But the truth is, most homeless people don’t refuse a bed. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I love being out here and slowly dying in the open.’ It’s no fun being homeless, ”she says.
Burroughs will do what he can to stay as he made a living in the gorge and has called it his home in Topanga for 33 years.
“This is my home. … I’m not going anywhere.”