A fire early Friday destroyed 11 small shelters and damaged four others housing homeless veterans on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The fire was likely caused by lithium batteries that overheated while charging at one of the shelters, LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said.
The fire department estimated the total damage at $160,000, including about $50,000 for the contents of the homes that were lost.
There were no reported injuries from the fire, which was reported at 12:12 a.m. on the 388-acre campus where the small hometown is located. Firefighters caught fire to 11 shelters when they arrived, and they put out the blaze in about 15 minutes, Humphrey said.
The Red Cross was contacted, but a spokesman said his services were not needed to help the 20 displaced veterans. Officials from the Veterans Affairs office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Rob Reynolds, a veteran and volunteer with the advocacy group AMVETS, said he received a call from a resident shortly after the fire started.
“While I was driving, I saw the fire start to spread to a number of other small houses,” Reynolds said. “I didn’t realize how flammable these little houses are. I mean, these things were just involved. And it just spread very quickly from one to the other.”
“The veterans should be in buildings with sprinkler systems,” Reynolds added. “This wouldn’t have happened [if they were in buildings with sprinklers]. They shouldn’t even be in small houses.”
The VA campus in West LA was handed over to the federal government in 1888 to care for post-Civil War veterans, but in recent decades, proponents have argued that empty buildings on campus could be better used to house homeless veterans.
A homeless camp known as “Veterans Row” formed on the outskirts of campus along San Vicente Boulevard in recent years, but in November the VA evicted the camp while providing services and temporary shelter to residents.
The small native village was built on the other side of the fence. Although there are 140 houses in the village, according to a recent report from Knock LA, several remain vacant due to staff shortages.
Arnold Schwarzenegger donated 25 small houses, measuring 8 by 8 feet, to the village in December.
The village was built under the Care, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Program, which arose out of a federal class-action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. The lawsuit argued that the VA’s programs discriminated against homeless veterans with serious mental health problems, preventing them from accessing medical and mental health services.
As part of a lawsuit settlement, the VA promised to build 1,200 homes on campus for homeless veterans, but the project has missed several key milestones.