Malibu fires change hiking landscape

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The burnt landscape of Corral Canyon can seen behind posted signs warning against smoking and campfires. The signs did not stop those accused of starting the Nov. 24 Corral Fire. Photo by Melonie Magruder / TMT

Santa Monica Mountains area hiking clubs are at a loss after the fires, forcing them to find different routes, or hike elsewhere.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When Todd Lubin launched the Santa Monica Hiking Club in August of 2007, it was primarily so he could meet up with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts to take advantage of the rugged splendors and breathtaking views afforded by the miles of hiking trails that snake through the Santa Monica Mountains. Every Saturday, he would select a route, post a message to his 350 members and assemble with 30 or 40 of them at a trailhead and then hike for a couple of hours in the canyons stretching up the coast from Santa Monica to Ventura County.

Then the fires of October and November swept through the mountains above Malibu, and dramatically changed the landscape.

The Latigo Trailhead on the Backbone Trail, heading northwestwardly, begins at the parking lot at the end of Corral Canyon Road. The burnt outlines of scrub consumed in a fire two years ago can be seen marking the landscape, with patches of green beginning to grow below the bush. But the road leading up to the spot is now a bizarre backdrop of khaki-colored cacti, dotted with bare, black branches poking up through the dirt and a sour, acrid smell pervades the air.

“It’s an entirely different landscape now in some areas,” Lubin said. “It’s tough because, as regular hikers, we are very careful to avoid doing anything that would endanger the trails that are so beautiful.”

Lubin’s Santa Monica Hiking Club does more than just appreciate the gifts of nature in local mountains. He regularly organizes beach clean-ups and repairs to trailheads with donations from his group, working with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

“Over the past seven months, we’ve been very aware of the fire danger up in the mountains,” Lubin said. “Especially Temescal Canyon. There are so many miles of trails that I know it is hard to maintain them, but you could tell the dead and dry brush were just waiting for a spark. It was a question of time.”

The hiking club cleans up trailheads clogged with trash and cigarette butts. “There should be a fine for smoking while out in the wilderness,” Lubin said. “I scout all the trails before we schedule a hike and now …” his voice trailed off.

The club’s weekend hikes range from novice (gentle hikes on flat terrain) to “professional” (fast paced and difficult with rough climbing) and anyone is welcome to join.

Verun Rahimtoola lives in the urban confines of Westchester and regularly re-connects with nature through the club’s hikes.

“We’ve gone all through Solstice and Corral Canyon, but now, I guess we’ll be hiking elsewhere,” he said.

Rahimtoola is conscious of the human impact on the area.

“Most hikers are very aware and don’t trash the trails. They certainly don’t smoke on trails, but I don’t know that anything can be done about people who decide to build campfires when they shouldn’t.”

Ben Horowitz, a local data analyst who hikes with the club, believes that stiff penalties should be imposed on anyone whose activities could spark wildfires.

“There should be no camping during high alerts and maybe shut down trails quickly when there is high wind,” he said. “And a big deterrent to building campfires during Santa Ana conditions would be a long prison term for the people who started the fire in November.”

In fact, the California State Parks Department has a clear code regarding use of state park trails or campgrounds and use of fire.

“We’ve had a closure program in place for over 12 years,” Craig Sap, the Public Safety superintendent for the Parks Department, said. “We enforce the public resource code and violations, like ignoring closure notices or no-fire rules, can bring fines of up to $250.”

Sap said all park and campground entrances have clear signage and a graduated system of fire restrictions that is duly enforced.

“During times of low fire risk, wood fires are allowed and during drier seasons, fires are restricted to manageable heat sources, like Sterno logs within fire rings only,” Sap said. “But in red flag seasons, we post signs prohibiting any fire at all.”

But even the strictest enforcement efforts cannot monitor the thousands of acres under department oversight.

“Our rangers are all armed law enforcement officers and have authority to arrest people who break the rules,” Sheryl Watson, the State Parks public information officer, said. “But you have to catch the violators.”

Staff shortages within the parks department leave thousands of acres unpatrolled.

Meanwhile, Lubin’s group will continue to use private resources and member volunteer efforts to help maintain the hiking trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Maybe we can seek private donations to help by building parks and naming certain trails for the donor,” Lubin said. “Hey, it works for colleges and sports arenas, maybe that can work for nature trails.”

More information about the Santa Monica Hiking Club can be obtained online at hiking.meetup.com/354/?gj=sj6