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The Los Angeles fire that destroyed Bel-Air homes began at a homeless camp, officials say

Flames climb along a steep canyon wall and threaten homes as the Skirball Fire swept through the Bel-Air district of Los Angeles on Dec. 6. Fire officials said Tuesday that the blaze was started by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment. (Reed Saxon/AP)
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The blaze that destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen more last week in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles — one of the country’s most affluent communities — was sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment, fire officials said Tuesday.

Homeless people for several years have lived in a small canyon east of the 405 freeway near Sepulveda Boulevard in Bel-Air, said Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Arson investigators visited the encampment the morning of Dec. 6 and found evidence that people had been cooking and sleeping in the brush area, but did not find anyone at the encampment. Much of it was destroyed by the fire.

Fire officials said that before the fire, they were unaware of the encampment’s existence and had not answered any calls in that location.

The fire, dubbed the Skirball Fire, is among blazes that have ravaged Southern California for more than a week, fanned by high-speed winds and dry conditions. The damage caused by the Skirball Fire was small compared with the Thomas Fire, which remains the largest active wildfire, having burned through nearly 150,000 acres and taking with it more than 500 buildings and at least one life as of Sunday. Officials over the weekend began lifting evacuation orders in Ventura, leaving them to deal with the aftermath of the historic fire. Residents in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara were still under threat Sunday as the fire raged.

After it broke early Wednesday, the Skirball Fire blackened chaparral-covered hillsides along the freeway and shut down part of the 405 during that morning’s rush hour. It destroyed more than 400 acres in Bel-Air and damaged homes on Moraga Drive, Casiano Road and Linda Flora Drive, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The fire tore through the hills over UCLA, where classes were canceled, according to the L.A. Times. Faculty and staff living off-campus were urged to stay away and the university, along with more than 800 Department of Water and Power customers, lost power.

It forced the Getty Center to close, though officials said the flames did not immediately endanger the museum’s art, according to the L.A. Times. And about a hundred nuns at a nursing home in the fire’s path were evacuated and taken into the homes of maintenance workers, nurses, administrators and drivers.

The fire also led Los Angeles Lakers player Brook Lopez to use a car service to evacuate his cat from his Bel-Air home, according to the L.A. Times.

By Tuesday, the fire was 85 percent contained, with 69 firefighters still working to fully extinguish it. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Thomas Fire was 25 percent contained, while the other fires were either mostly contained or fully extinguished.

The investigators examining the homeless encampment ruled out arson as a cause of the fire based on where the flames ignited and what was left there. Sanders said there are no suspects in connection to the fire.

About 55,000 homeless people were living in Los Angeles County in 2017 — about 13,000 people more than in 2016, according to the Associated Press. Most homeless people there are considered unsheltered, meaning tens of thousands of people can’t access shelters and are forced to sleep in streets or parks. In New York City, just 5 percent of homeless people are considered unsheltered because of a system that gets people into shelters immediately.

About 90 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans. Some result from campfires left unattended or negligently discarded cigarettes, according to the National Park Service. The other 10 percent of fires are caused by lightening or lava.

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