City, Conservancy Dispute Origin of 2017 Skirball Fire

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The 2017 Skirball Fire that damaged a Bel-Air synagogue did not start in a homeless encampment as alleged in a long-running lawsuit by the plaintiffs, according to new court papers filed by the city of Los Angeles and the state through the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

The Leo Baeck Temple, two individuals and Ace American Insurance Co., which paid clients for property damaged in the fire, are plaintiffs in the suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2018. The synagogue leaders said their building sustained fire damage from the blaze, which swept through the hills of Bel-Air on Dec. 6, 2017. The leaders maintain, as did initially the Los Angeles Fire Department, that the source of the blaze was a cooking fire that broke out at an encampment nearby.

The blaze destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen others. But that argument is disputed in court papers filed Tuesday with Judge Kenneth Freeman seeking dismissal of all or part of the claims against the city. Lawyers for the City Attorney's Office state that a senior Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigator concluded in April 2018 that the fire originated north of the homeless encampment that was initially under investigation, on the west-facing mountainside adjacent to the northbound San Diego (405) Freeway, and that the fire's cause was undetermined.

The city does not own the land where the fire actually began and has no authority to maintain it, the City Attorney's lawyers further maintain. Similarly, SMMC attorneys state in their court papers regarding the claims against the conservancy that two eyewitness to the earliest flames of the Skirball Fire testified that they observed those flames at an area six-tenths of a mile north of the homeless encampment and did not see flames in the encampment's vicinity. Their recollections have been verified by time-stamped photographs and a video clip, and are also corroborated by the earliest 911 calls, the SMMC lawyers further state in their court papers. The SMMC did not create the allegedly dangerous condition and its members did not know of its existence, conservancy lawyers state in their court papers.

An erroneous media report, feeding upon fears about the homeless population, that the fire possibly started in the encampment was debunked by the LAFD's arson investigation report, according to the SMMC attorneys, who further state that the lawsuit ``should never have been filed.''  But in their lawsuit, temple leaders say the city received multiple complaints about the encampment, which was situated among dry brush and flammable vegetation, but failed to inspect or warn the public about the dangerous condition.

The city ``knew or should have known that this presented a fire hazard, as the area is prone to wildfires because of the trees, bushes and other vegetation and foliage,'' the lawsuit states.  The encampment was nestled in a canyon several hundred feet from Sepulveda Boulevard and the 405 Freeway, hidden from passing cars. Officials have said it was home to an unknown number of people for several years. The camp -- one of scores of makeshift communities that have grown along freeways, rivers and open space across Los Angeles -- was largely destroyed in the fire. The plaintiffs dropped Los Angeles County as a defendant in the case last August. A hearing on the city and SMMC dismissal motions is scheduled Nov. 1.

Magnify glass inspects paper documents

Photo: Getty Images

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