A fire at the VA Tiny Home site illustrates the dire need to provide permanent housing.
The VA called the Los Angeles Fire Department at 12:12 AM on September 9, 2022, reporting that 11 Tiny Homes were ablaze. The flames had spread in minutes across the units. Residents who woke up in time scrambled to gather their possessions, while others who were not promptly notified lost their belongings to the fire.
“I could see the flames billowing over the fence,” says Rob Reynolds, an advocate for unhoused veterans who arrived on the scene shortly after the fire blazed. “I pulled in and there was, like, between 10 and 15 on fire. I just thought, ‘Oh god, someone’s gonna be in their tiny home.’ Thankfully, everyone was able to get out and no one was injured.”
The LAFD extinguished the flames within 15 minutes. The department says they determined the fire was “electrical in nature,” and “related to the apparent overheating of a lithium battery being charged in one of the Tiny Homes.”
Residents are not only displaced from the shelters that burned down, but also those that are awaiting repairs. “Social workers are contacting impacted veterans to assess their needs and determine the best housing options moving forward,” added the VA.
The LAFD says that collateral damage is typically “related to heat, smoke and/or water damage.” The fire department estimated the damage at $110,000 for the structures and $50,000 for the “contents” of the shelters. At $160,000, the total damage of the fire costs more than the construction of 16 Tiny Homes.
Patrick, a veteran resident of the Tiny Home encampment who lost his Tiny Home to the fire witnessed the LAFD response. He said that it appeared difficult for the fire trucks to maneuver around the encampment because of its density and a lack of available areas for them to park near the site.
As Knock LA has previously reported, veterans at the Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitative Services Initiative (CTRS) live in substandard conditions, and the Tiny Home site has also previously flooded. These “Tiny Homes” are designed by the company Pallet, and have been scrutinized before for being susceptible to fires.
After 20 Pallet Tiny Homes were destroyed in a fire in Banning, California, Invisible People reported that the materials for the walls had been changed, though Pallet said those changes had nothing to do with fire safety. Curbed investigated the flammability of the materials, and found with a fire marshal that the changes did not make the shelters any less flammable.
According to the Pallet website, the shelters are made up of a “unique material mix that was specifically selected for safety, ease of use, and cost efficiency.” It goes on to say that their panels meet a Class C fire rating. This is the lowest rating in terms of fire prevention.
The Tiny Homes are not tested by the LAFD for flammability. “Like most fire departments, we have somewhat limited experience with many aspects of these new forms of transitional housing, and as an agency, do not perform live fire testing to expressly evaluate their flammability,” the LAFD says.
The LAFD also says that the smoke alarms in the shelters worked to alert residents. However, Patrick said, “I didn’t hear any of the [fire alarms] really at all. Mine didn’t go off.” Instead, he was woken up by commotion outside of his unit when the fire started.
Patrick noted that only one of the security guards on duty was rushing to knock on doors. He also said that the small fire extinguishers in the Tiny Homes were ineffective, as they ran out of chemical foam after “a couple of squirts.”
Jessica Miles says she slept through the entire night without being alerted to the fire. “I didn’t find out until the morning, when I got a phone call” from veterans advocate Sennett Devermont checking to see if she was safe. Later that day she was informed that smoke had gotten into her air conditioning unit by an employee from CERS — the VA’s Community Engagement and Reintegration Service.
“I ran my AC all night, the whole time it was happening, so I don’t know if every one of us was inhaling the smoke,” Miles said. Due to safety concerns, she was offered a spot in the female domiciliary, Building 214.
Miles and Patrick both say that when they entered into the CTRS initiative — where the Tiny Home shelters are located — they were not given any sort of fire safety protocol for an evacuation plan.
“I got my stuff ready to go, because I wasn’t sure [what was going on],” Patrick said. “They have little emergency doors in the back of the unit, so I made sure the latch would open and I could get out safely.”
Patrick noted that a lot of residents were unaware of the emergency exit door, which is akin to a large dog door. Additionally, a few months back, a former CTRS resident reported that some of the emergency exits were blocked by electric wiring.
After leaving his unit, Patrick realized he had forgotten some of his belongings, so he went back through the door. He recalled, “It was so hot — my arms are still burning today. I couldn’t get everything.”
However, he was able to salvage his medication, wallet, EBT card, and other important documents, like his HUD/VASH housing voucher. If lost, Patrick would be at risk for further delay in the long process of getting into permanent housing.
Unfortunately, other veterans who lost their homes were not so lucky. One of Patrick’s neighbors lost pretty much everything. “He grabbed his phone and his wallet before he left, but I think he lost paperwork, clothes, meds, and his CPAP machine,” Patrick said. Patrick also suffers from chronic pain, and says the VA worked to help him replace his medications the following day.
Since there are no fire hydrants at the Tiny Home encampment or sufficient water sources to connect hoses, the LAFD says they manually extended a supply hose to the closest hydrant. Though the department says there were no logistical issues and that they put the fire out relatively quickly, fire hydrants on the property could have potentially accelerated the response.
This disaster — which by sheer luck did not turn fatal — is yet another example of why unhoused veterans belong in permanent housing. With sprinkler systems, inspections, and proper emergency exits, an electrical fire that caused this much damage could have been more easily prevented. The VA needs to prioritize building permanent housing instead of delaying construction for another ten years.
This is a developing story.