Homeless Fires Spark Concern

LA County Fire Department (LACoFD) personnel finish mopping up a fire in a homeless encampment located beneath Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu on Sunday, July 18. The fire, reported burning beneath an underpass at Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road, was the sixth or seventh to occur under an overpass in Malibu this summer, LACoFD reported.

July 16 and 18 saw the most recent two fires under the Pacific Coast Highway bridge across Malibu Creek. As it turns out, that area is a major homeless gathering spot that is now filled with tons of trash and belongings that regularly catch fire.  

Malibu Times Multimedia Director Julie Ellerton, who was on the scene July 18, described the smoke from that burning debris as “toxic.” However, the post-apocalyptic vision under the bridge will most likely be gone as soon as the next big rain washes all the waste out to Surfrider Beach and Malibu Lagoon.

Captain Cole Kahle at Malibu Fire Station 88 said in a phone interview that this summer there have been fires more than once per week under that bridge for a total of six or seven fires over the last month-and-a-half. He said that twice, there was so much smoke coming from under the bridge it was mistakenly labeled as a brush fire.

“[The homeless] do all their cooking under that bridge,” Kahle explained.

When asked if a pile of propane tanks Ellerton spotted being stored on one side of the bridge presented a hazard, he said, “They don’t explode like in the movies.” But the LA County Fire Department is becoming increasingly concerned about cooking fires started by the unhoused.

“We just had a conference call with our chief, and he said they’ve started keeping tabs on all the homeless calls they get now,” Kahle related. “Citizens are calling in scared when the homeless have a fire below their house, and the city won’t let us remove them. The last two months have gotten really bad in Malibu—the homeless we’ve asked for ID have come from all over [the U.S.]. Two new arrivals from Austin, Texas, said they heard Malibu was a great place to be homeless.”

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva even jumped on the bandwagon last week in a July 21 Facebook Live broadcast.

“Investigators from our Arson and Explosives detail went to the Malibu Lagoon State Beach to assist the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station and State Parks,” Villanueva stated. “They had two fires at the same location in three days. Investigators determined the fires were in a transient camp and were human-caused. It’s a big [wildfire] threat if conditions are just right … and you’re not going to improve the situation by allowing these encampments to grow.”

“So, we’re working actively to clear out the encampments that are a threat to … wildfires starting in the wildland/urban interface—primarily Topanga Canyon, Pacific Palisades, and all around the perimeters of Malibu,” he continued, later adding, “The encampments are a threat to everyone’s safety.”

In the week between Villanueva’s broadcast and this newspaper’s Tuesday deadline, there have been no reports of the sheriff taking any action to remove encampments in Malibu.

Underpass fires are not the only reported issues. There have also been two fires in the Tuna Canyon vicinity in July—a remote area of eastern Malibu that has frequently caught fire since becoming a popular camping spot for the unhoused.

On July 9, there was a six-acre fire in Tuna Canyon dubbed the Tuna Fire. Firefighters had to hike in at least 2,000 feet of hose to reach the burn zone and face the possibility of falling rocks. Capt. Kahle said he witnessed the homeless pouring out of the area during the fire. Battalion Chief Drew Smith told city council he believed that fire was caused by a homeless encampment.

Of the six parcels of vacant land along Tuna Canyon Road closest to PCH, which comprise over 125 acres, five parcels were cited by LA County for failing to do brush clearance in both 2019 and 2020.

According to LA County and reporting in the Messenger Mountain News (in Topanga), in April 2008, 12 parcels in lower Tuna Canyon were sold through foreclosure to Canyon Vineyard Estates (CVE), LLC, the current property owner.

Reid Breitman, a real estate developer, is behind the LLC. He has sought to amend the LCP for the City of Malibu and LA County to eliminate the open space zoning designation and pave the way for 20-acre estates on the property. Superior Court Judge Elaine W. Mandel did not accept the developer’s arguments, responding that Breitman must have been aware he was purchasing property with deed restrictions and an open space designation.

“[He] paid vastly less for the land after foreclosure ($1.3 million) than it would have expected to pay for unencumbered land that could be developed ($13 million),” her ruling stated.


Rental properties also blamed for blazes

A fire that began on July 19 in an area very near Tuna Canyon burned 15 acres before being extinguished by fire crews. Someone claiming to be a resident of that area sent an anonymous letter to The Malibu Times blaming the fire on a short-term rental (STR) in the neighborhood. Helicopter footage from KTLA showed the fire near a residence identified as an STR, which the anonymous writer said rents for $900/night. The online description lists a hot wood tub and an open fire pit out back, “amidst the remote, dry brush of this canyon,” the person wrote.

The anonymous writer pointed out that unhoused people are not the only ones responsible for causing wildfires in the area, saying we can also blame “individuals profiting from [STRs] and wealthy vacationers.”

Last January 17, one person was killed and two seriously injured in a fire at a STR at 2145 Rambla Pacifico, Malibu, which started at the home and spread into nearby brush, burning four acres.