Corral Canyon Neighborhood Takes Action Against Fires

With memories still painfully vivid of 2007’s catastrophic fire that swept through Corral Canyon around Thanksgiving time, John Shafai recalled evacuating his family including a newborn and toddler in the middle of the night. 

“Back then, I didn’t know anything about fires and wasn’t ready,” Shafai said. It took a couple of days for Shafai to find out if his house survived. It did, but he said, “Our street, Lockwood Drive, was devastated.” A total of 53 homes were lost; only a handful remained on Shafai’s street. Since then, Corral Canyon residents have mobilized and formed an alliance to prepare themselves for the next fire emergency like no other community in Malibu.

Even before the ashes were cleared, residents formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit for an independent firefighting organization in their neighborhood called the Corral Canyon Quick Response Team. They quickly bought two fire engines and five pickup trucks equipped with 100-gallon water tanks. Using makeshift water dispensers with pressurization from scuba gear, the group was poised for its own rapid response. 

Malibu resident Matt Haines, who fought the 2007 blaze with his own fire truck and is credited with saving properties, said neighbors stepped up to help because living in a box canyon with one way in and one way out presents safety challenges for firefighters trying to access the area. 

“In 2007, there were a lot of resources gathering at the bottom on Pacific Coast Highway but they couldn’t come up the canyon because the fire was coming down the canyon,” Haines described. “People saw that and said, ‘Why is my house burning and there are firefighters down there?’” The danger to firefighters below was too great.

That’s when then-Fire Chief Michael Freeman offered another solution that hadn’t been used in Malibu before—the Call Firefighter program instead of an independent operation. But, residents would need to fulfill three requirements—10 people who could graduate from the program that requires physical abilities, provide a fire engine and a facility to keep it in. Corral Canyon residents immediately stepped up. Thirty Corral Canyon residents tried out and 10 were selected to the Call Firefighter program, which employs firefighters through the Los Angeles County Fire Department at an on-call basis.

The Call Firefighters truly are that—employees. They wear pagers and are on-call 24/7. Officially in place since 2010, the Call Firefighters from Corral Canyon have responded to blazes not only in Corral but also in Latigo and Encinal canyons and on Pt. Dume. They’ve been first responders in at least a dozen incidents throughout the city. The group trains every other Saturday at Fire Station 71 in Malibu. They operate out of a temporary station in the Malibu Bowl area; however, a permanent station 271 designed by local Vitus Matare is going through the permit process and is expected to start a groundbreaking in a year. All the effort is community funded or donated. 

The Corral Canyon Fire Safety Alliance, made up of homeowners in the area, is recognized by the California Fire Safe Council, which allows the group to apply for grants to help fund expenditures. About 100 neighbors gathered Sunday at Calamigos Beach Club to review where their donations have gone, recruit more Call Firefighters and provide information on how to prepare for fire emergencies. 

Insurance representatives were in attendance, along with Battalion Chief Kevin Kinney—who congratulated homeowners for taking action—and Malibu City Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas. 

Dueñas addresses residents’ concerns about homeless encampments and the potential for fires to start, saying the city has started a homeless encampment management initiative. She added monthly clean ups will start soon, now that a budget has been approved. While she said she is “empathic to people hard on their luck” Dueñas added, “we just can’t afford the safety [risk]. 

“We can’t have fires,” the public safety manager explained. “That’s where the sympathy and empathy stops—when people’s lives are at stake. We are trying to be very helpful with outreach workers, but we have to ensure the safety of our community.”

Haines, who is a Call Firefighter along with Shafai, said of his Corral Canyon neighbors: “It’s an amazing community. The support has been unbelievable.”

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