Letter: The Future of Malibu

Letter to the Editor

As a 44-year resident of Malibu, residing in the same house over the years, I don’t want to lose everything I own as many of my friends and neighbors in western Malibu unfortunately have, escaping their houses as the Woolsey Fire approached with only the clothes they were wearing. Over 750 structures in the 90265 area code were destroyed in the fire. Something must be done to prevent this from happening again. In the future, we citizens of Malibu must not rely on government to protect us; we must take action to protect ourselves and our property from the natural forces surrounding us. 

Here is what I have learned:

1. There was a total lack of coordination between the City of Malibu, the Los Angeles Fire Department, the County of Los Angeles and the sheriff’s department during the fire. It was chaos. The mayor of Malibu, a LAFD captain, was off fighting the fire; the mayor pro tem was understandably trying to save his own house, and was hospitalized as a result; the sheriff’s department was in the midst of a leadership change, as the Sheriff was defeated for reelection; and the county was nowhere to be seen. 

2. The sheriff’s department caused more harm than they helped fix during the fire. A letter in The Malibu Times stated: At the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, the writer overheard another person identify himself “as a member of the Malibu CERT. He very politely explained that he had a truck full of generators, gasoline and other supplies he wanted to deliver to those who had stayed behind to protect our community. The watch commander indicated that he knew nothing about the CERT and his orders were to prohibit anyone from entering Malibu.” The CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program was set up in 1985 by the LAFD to provide basic training in safety and lifesaving skills to the general public, and has been adopted and enhanced by FEMA. The Malibu CERT was established to assist the city for emergency disaster response in Malibu. It now appears that the sheriff’s department, by implementing its “hard stop” policy after the initial fire swept through Malibu, effectively imprisoned those Malibu homeowner-heroes who stayed to fight the fire by not allowing anyone to enter Malibu to provide them with needed supplies to fight the spot fires, which destroyed many of the homes in Malibu that burned on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 10-11. In desperation, many of the CERT members chartered boats to bring in the needed supplies, much of which came in on surfboards. 

3. The “highway of death.” On the early morning of Nov. 9, an emergency message was sent out to all Malibu homeowners and residents to evacuate the city immediately. That is the word I got, and it was characterized as a mandatory evacuation. At 6:57 a.m., this notice was sent out: “MANDATORY EVACUATION -All of Malibu, all areas S of 101 Fwy, Ventura County to Malibu Cyn.” At 7:52 a.m., this notice was changed to the following: “MANDATORY EVACUATION – All areas S of 101 Fwy, Ventura County to Malibu Cyn (not entire City Malibu).” But by this time, much of eastern Malibu had joined those in western Malibu on the escape route along PCH, clogging up the route and creating a monumental traffic jam that lasted much of the day, until someone realized the problem and opened up all four lanes of PCH for the southbound exodus in the afternoon. Someone in this line of cars told me the two northbound lanes were apparently kept open initially for fire engines and other emergency traffic to head north to fight the fire, but he never saw a single northbound fire engine the whole time he was in the line. If the Woolsey Fire had reached PCH earlier on Friday, those trapped in their cars on PCH would have burned to death in the fire.

4. Where was Malibu City Hall? As stated above, during the early days of the fire, some of the elected Malibu officials were not available, and the city staff was equally missing. Many live outside Malibu, and could not get to City Hall that Friday morning as all traffic on PCH was ordered to head south out of Malibu, and the canyon roads were closed by the fire. There was no city staff onsite to deal with the fire, and initially, the Incident Command Post was established in Thousand Oaks at Conejo Creek Park, at the intersection of the 23 freeway and Janss Road—far from Malibu. The command post was then moved farther away from Malibu to the Camarillo Airport as the fire spread. The Command Post was not relocated to Bluffs Park in Malibu until Nov. 19, 11 days after the fire began. This location and relocation far from Malibu contributed to the confusion and lack of coordination between the various government agencies regarding the fire. 

5. Where were the firefighters? Some of those who stayed in Malibu during the fire have commented to me that they saw far too few firefighters in the Pt. Dume, Malibu Park and Malibu West areas during the first few days of the fire. They saw very few air drops in western Malibu as the fire approached, and after the first wave of flames passed, and as spot fires were erupting from flying embers. Were the firefighters sent to Northern California to fight the huge, tragic Paradise fire? Were they up north in Thousand Oaks and Agoura, fighting the Woolsey Fire there? Were they at Pepperdine protecting the initially “sheltering in place” students? Were they marshaling their assets to contain the fire so that it did not cross Malibu Canyon and threaten the Civic Center area and eastern Malibu? Has the LAFD been so starved of funds that it does not have the manpower and airpower to fight a fire as large as the Woolsey Fire?

6. Which is more important, protecting the ESHA or protecting our homes? Much of the land in the Santa Monica Mountains that burned above the Malibu city limits belongs to the National Park Service, State Parks and Joe Edmiston’s Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. In the future, what protective measures can the City of Malibu and its residents—particularly those in eastern Malibu, where the Woolsey Fire did not burn—take to stop the next fire from burning down their homes? Or is it more important to protect the chaparral ESHA in the public lands than to protect our homes? Should Malibu be allowed to burn, as some have suggested? 

7. Should Malibu communities develop their own CERT teams and fire protection volunteer brigades to fight the next fire, as the LAFD seems to be helpless to prevent our homes from burning? Malibu West had in place a voluntary fire brigade of 20-or-so homeowners, and these heroes stayed and saved many homes in Malibu West. Corral Canyon homeowners tried to establish the same thing, but the fire engine they bought was confiscated by the LAFD and dumped. Barbra Streisand reportedly had her own private firefighters onsite to protect her Zumirez home, and Calamigos Ranch was able to survive due to having their own fire equipment and water onsite. Should the eastern Malibu neighborhoods of Big Rock, Las Flores Canyon and Mesa, Carbon Canyon and Mesa, Sweetwater Mesa, and Serra Retreat also develop their own volunteer fire brigades? 

These comments and thoughts are meant to foster a Malibu community debate as to how we protect our lives and property in the future. 

Ted Vaill