Corral Canyon soon to have own firefighter crew


During the third anniversary of the Corral Canyon Fire, residents celebrate the news that 10 locals will soon be county-certified volunteer firefighters, and they have their own fire truck.

By Oscar Antonino / Special to The Malibu Times

During the mandatory evacuations the night of the November 2007 Corral Canyon Fire, resident Matthew Haines was one of the few who stayed behind. Fighting back the flames with his personal water-tanker truck, some residents have estimated he helped save dozens of homes.

Haines, a winner of The Malibu Times 2007 Dolphin Award, described the battle against 30-foot flames driven by winds of up to 80 mph.

“It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off,” he said. “There were huge fireball embers hurling around us and bursting as they went through the trees.”

The fire destroyed 53 homes, burnt nearly 5,000 acres and caused more than $100 million in damages.

Brian Weiss, secretary of the Corral Canyon Fire Safety Alliance (CCFSA), praised Haines’ efforts.

“People like Matt staying around had a huge impact,” he said. “By staying to protect their homes they helped keep it from leapfrogging to others.”

Now, Haines and nine other Corral Canyon residents, will soon be certified Call Firefighters for the County of Los Angeles Fire Department, pending completion of two more phases of training.

The announcement was welcomed with cheers from the attendees of the third annual fundraiser for the CCFSA, which took place Sunday at a resident’s home in the upper canyon. The CCFSA, a registered nonprofit organization, was created by members of the embattled community to protect the canyons’ residents and visitors by encouraging the implementation of better fire-prevention measures.

Although many people have a heroic view of Haines, Battalion Chief Terry DeJournett, whose command includes Corral Canyon, does not agree that residents should be independently deciding whether to obey evacuation orders.

“We know that the best thing to do in a wind-driven fire is to get the people out of the area,” he said. “In that scenario we start evacuations immediately.”

DeJournett spoke of three separate occurrences that November 2007 morning in which homes were consumed by flames as firefighters watched helplessly.

“I had engines parked right at these homes, but, because of the intensity of the fire, they were unable to protect them.”

But when Haines and the nine other Call Firefighters are certified, they will be able to fight wildfires with the blessing of the fire department – and with their own truck, Fire Engine 271.

The fire truck, which falls under the oversight of Fire Station 71, was purchased with money raised by the CCFSA and will be leased by the county fire department. It will be positioned at strategic points throughout the canyon, along with other emergency fire-fighting equipment and vehicles that the community is responsible for maintaining monetarily.

Despite initial opposition by local county fire officials, Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman’s support for the creation of a community-based volunteer crew of First Respondents ensured the opportunity for residents to work with the fire department to help protect their communities.

Paul Morra, president of the CCFSA, and one of the 10 soon-to-be Call Firefighters, said, “Really, the reason we’re here tonight is that he opened up that door for us.”

That door was opened after a contentious City Council meeting in February 2008, during which Freeman received an ear-full from community residents about the fire department’s response time to the Corral Canyon Fire. Many of the angry residents threatened to disobey evacuation orders during future fires unless satisfactory steps were taken to ensure faster response times.

Freeman consequently decided to form a working group to explore ideas about how to address those concerns. After more than a year of deliberations, it resulted in the approval of the fifth-ever Call Firefighter crew to be approved by the county.

DeJournett is cautiously optimistic that the Call Firefighter program can be a success if it is utilized properly.

“I’m not opposed to the program if they can be used like any other Call Firefighters,” he said. “Otherwise, it complicates the resource assignments.”

Fire Capt. Steve Swiatek, who leads the training for the 10 volunteers, said Sunday that their roles would become more clearly defined once they have completed the training process.

Beverly Taki, founder of Corral Canyon’s Operation Recovery, believes that the CCFSA’s work has paid off.

“I think we took a very bad situation and totally turned it into a positive,” she said. “Now we’re going to have these Call Firefighters … and that would have never happened without our persistence.”

Next week, The Malibu Times will feature a story about the recovery and rebuilding process that residents in Corral Canyon have been going through since the fire.