Fires Ignite in Hot, Dry Conditions

The Flores Fire on Monday, July 19

The sky above eastern Malibu was abuzz with firefighting aircraft on Monday, July 19, during a full-on assault of a brush fire burning in Tuna Canyon. The fire, which was held to seven acres, was first reported at 3:12 p.m., burning at Tuna Canyon Road and Las Flores Heights, about 3.5 miles above Pacific Coast Highway in Topanga.

Smoke from the blaze, named the Flores Fire, could be seen from Point Dume, with residents and visitors posting photos online of a plume of smoke rising from behind a distant ridge line. 

Firehawk helicopters from LA County Fire Department Air Operations dropped water, refilling at nearby 69 Bravo, the remote helipad located between Malibu and Topanga where water dropping helicopters can refill their basins from enormous, 8,000-gallon tanks. Not far behind, fixed-wing aircraft Coulson Aviation C-130 and T-131 dropped bright red flame retardant on the hillside. Approximately 200 firefighters battled flames from the ground.

In under two hours, it was over. 

The LA County Fire Department reported forward progress stopped on the fire at 5:01 p.m., with “one minor injury to a firefighter” and no civilian injuries. By Tuesday morning, the fire was 40 percent contained.

The success of the firefighting seems largely due to the immediate and heavy response as well as favorable conditions—wind was low. 

As NBC meteorologist Anthony Yanez put it, “It’s not too hot, not too dry and the winds are calm. But you can see there is a lot of fuel.” The fuel level in eastern Malibu—much of which has not burned in decades—has many concerned that the next big fire to burn east of Malibu Canyon Road could be catastrophic.

There was no immediate word as to the origin of the Flores Fire, although local news radio station KBUU News reported it “looks like it came from a B and B campsite … not a homeless campsite.” However, a fire reported one day previously was immediately linked to a homeless encampment in the heart of Malibu.

On Sunday, July 18, a small fire ignited beneath the Pacific Coast Highway overpass at Cross Creek Road in the Malibu Civic Center. The City of Malibu described the blaze as a brush fire, although on scene it appeared that trash, not plant matter, was fuel for the flames. 

Beneath the bridge lies a large encampment that has been home to unhoused people in Malibu. That appeared to be the fire’s point of origin.

By the time the city sent out an emergency alert at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, the flames were already out. Emergency workers were busy Sunday afternoon spraying the charred piles of belongings and trash that had collected beneath the overpass. 

No one was reported injured in this smaller fire, which did not damage any structures.

The fire also came scarcely two weeks after another fire that was sparked at a homeless encampment; that fire burned in Tuna Canyon on July 9.

Shortly after the most recent encampment fire, the City of Malibu announced the accelerated formation of a homelessness task force, with a special meeting of city council scheduled at the last minute for Wednesday evening, July 21. More information on that meeting can be found in news briefs on page A3. 

Julie Ellerton contributed to this report.