Fire Officials Inspected Westlake Building Where Five People Burned To Death Two Weeks Before Blaze
Two weeks before an apartment building burned to the ground in Westlake, killing five people who were living inside, a pair of battalion chiefs from the Los Angeles City Fire Department walked through the building and discussed how they would fight a fire in the event one broke out. As the L.A. Times reports, Fire Department officials had grown concerned about a fire in the disused building after several trash fires were set in an adjacent alleyway.
Though officially empty, the two story building located on West 8th Street between Alvarado and Hoover streets had become, like so many other structures in the city, a de facto shelter for the city's burgeoning homeless population. The five people who were killed in the Tuesday fire—three men and two women—are believed to have been transient, according to KABC.
Neighbors reported the structure as a problem multiple times, saying that loud parties were commonplace, as were fights. After LAFD officials inspected the structure, they reportedly began working with the building's owner to secure the building and ensure nobody could get inside.
That, evidently, didn't happen.
At around 7 p.m. on Tuesday June 14, a 21-year-old man named Johnny Sanchez allegedly set the building on fire after fighting with some of the other people living inside. Sanchez, who is also transient, was arrested the next day and charged with five counts of capital murder, along with two counts of attempted, premeditated murder, special circumstances of multiple murders, and arson murder, according to KTLA.
As LAPD Captain Billy Hayes said to the L.A. Times, Sanchez purposefully set the building on fire "with the hopes of killing these individuals."
Because of this blaze, the fire department is urging residents to report other empty buildings in their neighborhoods so department officials can ensure the structures are secured from the outside, and are a minimal fire risk.
The conflagration is also putting a spotlight on the inability of city and county officials to deal with homelessness in a rapid and meaningful way. Though the city and county have submitted multi-billion dollar plans to remedy homelessness in the Southland, the problem is very present tense, as this fire emphasizes. Squatting in an empty building, fire risk though it may be, is preferable to living on the streets.
"We're not moving fast enough to build housing," said L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo to the L.A. Times. "So people are creative. They make encampments. They go into abandoned buildings."