Plans to move prison firefighters to Malibu station axed

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Uproar by residents of Las Flores Canyon and Rambla Pacifico over the plan may have derailed the county’s consideration of using the Camp 8 site to temporarily house inmates who were burned out by the Station Fire.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

Following a hurricane of dissenting Malibu residents, Los Angeles County officials on Tuesday decided to terminate the possibility of housing as many as 100 prison inmate firefighters at a local fire station located at the top of Rambla Pacifico.

Officials from the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were considering using the station, known as Camp 8, as temporary quarters for the inmate firefighters whose Camp 16 at Mt. Gleason was torched last August by the Station Fire, the largest wildfire in L.A. County history.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael P. Freeman on Tuesday said the Camp 8 site was proposed last week and officials had since been conducting an assessment to determine whether it fits the criteria from corrections officials. But, he said, it was eliminated because his agency has identified better alternative locations.

Four camps operated by county fire and state corrections officials currently exist in Los Angeles County: in Acton, Saugus, the San Gabriel Mountains and Encinal Canyon in Malibu, which houses female inmate fire crews. But unlike other sites, Camp 8 is located near a residential neighborhood.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky on Monday explained the camps are not jails or correctional facilities. They house nonviolent convicts serving prison sentences for crimes such as drug possession, DUI, identity theft, burglary and welfare fraud and are considered low-security facilities. The inmates who volunteer for fire duty are chosen from a group of those who behave ideally while incarcerated. They are also physically tested, trained and supervised by correctional guards at the camps.

Despite Malibu’s rank as one of the most fire-prone areas in the county, the proposal caused an uproar among many residents who, in a flyer circulated last week, claimed that putting a “prison” in their neighborhood would reduce property values, create an unsafe environment, increase road traffic, and inhibit fire response and emergency evacuation abilities, among other negative impacts. At least 100 residents, who learned of the issue from the flyer circulated on Friday, attended a meeting at a private residence up Rambla Pacifico Monday night, at which many accused state and county officials of secretly plotting to carry out the proposal. The flyer stated that the inmate firefighters would move into Camp 8 on Feb. 25, but that the date was revoked by officials upon realization that residents were aware of the situation.

“They’re elected officials for a reason,” resident Maggie Karpuk said at the meeting. “They have very good PR departments, good research departments and they know how to make the facts palatable. So all of a sudden, now that they know that we know, they’re starting to do a little backwards shuffle … We have to make sure they give us a legal document that says, ‘We’re never going to do this to your community.’”

Yaroslavsky said he had learned of the situation that morning through a call from the Los Angeles Times, and that he was not aware of the rumored move-in date. He also stressed that no plan would proceed without public input.

“People are upset and suspicious for good reason because this is not the way they should have been informed on it,” Yaroslavsky said. “I’m as upset about having to have learned about it this way as anybody else.”

Yaroslavsky on Tuesday said the reason Freeman did not inform him of the issue is because the fire chief “felt it was very premature in stages. He said to me he did not want to bring this to me until he knew whether this was a viable option.”

Freeman in a phone interview Tuesday called allegations that state and county officials were secretly pursuing Camp 8 “ridiculous.”

“If we intended it to be a secret, we certainly aren’t very good at our game,” Freeman said. “The fact is we needed to do an assessment to see if it was even buyable as a facility itself. I enjoy meeting and talking with the community on things related to public safety. It was absolutely not an effort to be secretive. We just were getting an assessment done and then were going to discuss it with the community.

“What we’re trying to do is keep 95 firefighters within L.A. County for the next fire season,” he continued. “To do that we’ve got to find a place for them.”

While the termination of the Camp 8 proposal may have satisfied many Malibu residents, Arson Watch, a volunteer program of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station that patrols mountain roads on high-risk fire days, says it could have greatly benefitted the area.

“I think Camp 8 is a critical resource for fire protection in the Santa Monica Mountains and I think having a well trained camp crew there full time could only be an asset for our firefighting effort,” Abigail Buck, the public information officer and team leader for the Topanga/Calabasas Arson Watch, said Tuesday in a phone interview. “It takes time to transport camp crews into the area when there is a major fire and having one on the ground could save critical minutes.”

Buck added that she didn’t think the placement of inmate firefighters at a camp located near a residential neighborhood was a problem.

“They are considered low-risk inmates,” she said. “They have a tremendous incentive to stay with the crew and behave appropriately because they get a shortened sentence if they do. They also learn valuable job skills.”