On the morning of January 13, Laura and her partner woke up to the sound of someone yelling, “Fire, fire!” It took her a second to realize that the tent next to hers was on fire—and hers would be the next to burn.
It has been 42 days since a major fire destroyed a 68-year-old, 7,000-square-foot commercial building on Ocean Front Walk and many tents in the alley next to the building. Still, more questions than answers remain—questions about what's next for people living on the boardwalk and questions surrounding the safety and security of the entire community.
The fire started around 6:30 a.m. on January 13 at 723 Ocean Front Walk. Despite the dampening effect of the foggy morning, it took 116 firefighters two hours and 17 minutes to extinguish the flames in a largely defensive firefighting operation.
Although the Los Angeles Fire Department indicated that the fire is still under investigation, multiple reports and a video show the fire was started in a tent tied to the building.
"It was the scariest day of my life"
Laura and her partner have lived in the alley where the fire originated for five years. "I wasn't sure what was happening,” she recalls. “I heard what I thought at first were raindrops." She then began to smell smoke and quickly realized she needed to escape the fire.
"I grabbed my dog and my backpack and yelled at my partner to get out," she recounts, crediting a fireproof tarp on top of her tent for saving her, her dog and her partner.
"With the recent fires, something told me we needed it [the tarp]. I could have died in that fire. If not, I could have been burned."
The day after the fire, Laura says she and her partner were given a new tent, a few articles of clothing and a blanket. They were told other services would follow.
More than five weeks later, the only help she says that she and others who lived in the alley have received is food and clothing. "Not even a motel voucher," she adds. "I'm not young anymore. I can't keep doing this."
Fire strikes more than once
This wasn’t the first fire in the alley in the past year. On October 15, 2020, a nearby resident captured a video of a fire in the same alley. He posted it on YouTube and captioned it: “The city needs to create a safe environment for all people, unhoused and housed.”
A developing story
The Venice Current obtained an email sent by a resident to the Los Angeles Fire Department and LA Sanitation & Environment asking how to make the area safer. He stated that the tents and debris near the building were a fire hazard. The email pointed out the hazards of having tents tied to a building. Neither department responded to the email.
A few days after the fire, The Venice Current filed an open record request to determine the fire's costs—things like firefighter pay and equipment and damage to the building and land. The request was recently sent back saying "there is an open arson investigation for this fire so no further information is available until the investigation has been closed." A response was sent back asking how transparency with the cost of the fire would interfere with an investigation. A few weeks later a notice that the request had been closed was sent. The purpose of the California Public Records Act is to give residents greater access to information.
During its February meeting, the Venice Neighborhood Council passed unanimously a motion calling for the City to enforce its existing Fire Code by requiring a 20 foot safety buffer between tents and lot lines, buildings, other tent or membrane structures, parked vehicles or internal combustion engines" as well as "banning any fires for any purpose on public property within 50 feet of any structure" in the wake of the fire.
Public Safety Committee Chair Soledad Ursua said that she had worked with LAFD to ensure that the motion specifically calls for enforcement of existing laws -- the city's near 100 year old fire code preventing outdoor fires on city streets.
A message from the building owner
The day after the fire, building owner Benjamin Schonbrun posted a message on Facebook stating: “Yesterday morning, January 13, 2021, I received a text that our building was on fire. It was no small fire. Flames were shooting into the sky from the center of the roof. It looked like an inferno. News reports painted a picture of complete devastation. I was numb and in disbelief. Sadness would come later.”
The building was unique. It was iconic in Venice Beach. It was originally a shul (synagogue). The lobby and entire ground floor were red brick. Overhead was a giant skylight covering most of the roof. A tall tree inside reached almost to the skylight.
It was instant love for me. My law practice started in that building. I was a part of its history. For more than 30 years, lawyers fought the good fight inside its walls. I’m thankful for all the memories. I want to shout out to everyone who shared my memories inside that space. You know who you are.
Yes, it’s sad, but during the same month that the building burned, America convulsed and started a rebirth, which is surely more momentous. My hope is that justice will once again find a home in America. The fight will continue.
The Venice Current is awaiting a reply from Schonbrun on the fate of the building and is also awaiting a response another open record request filed.
Editor's Note: Laura wished to have her last name changed for privacy.