Malibu homeless encampment sparks fears after brush fire threatens homes

For months, Lara Vidaurri has noticed a growing number of people cooking with portable stoves and over open flames at a homeless camp a few hundred yards below her Malibu home.

She said she reported the issue to police several times last year, worried about the fire danger the camp posed during what’s turned out to be the most destructive fire season in California history. One day, she went herself to pick up trash in the area.

Vidaurri’s fears grew early Monday when a wildfire crept up the hillside by her home, scorching nearly three acres and forcing her and her neighbors to flee.

Though the cause remains under investigation, the blaze renewed concerns raised last month when a cooking fire at an encampment sparked the destructive Skirball fire in Bel-Air. A large swath of the affluent community was forced to evacuate, and several homes were destroyed.

Following the fire, a task force was formed to reduce the fire risks posed by encampments citywide.

“I’m more scared now,” Vidaurri said Monday afternoon, as crews mopped up hot spots in her neighborhood. “But there’s nothing different I can do.”

The fire broke out amid a heat wave that has brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of Southern California and as powerful winds prompted fire danger warnings across the region.

More than 200 firefighters and three water-dropping helicopters were sent out to fight the blaze, which was reported about 3:15 a.m. near the Malibu Library in the 23500 block of Civic Center Way.

At one point the blaze reached the backyard of a home, but a team of firefighters doused the flames, said Inspector Gustavo Medina of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Within two hours the fire was almost fully contained, with no reports of damaged homes. Shortly after 6 a.m., authorities lifted evacuation orders issued in the Harbor Vista Drive, Colony View Circle and Malibu Crest Drive areas.

Authorities don’t know when they’ll nail down the cause of the blaze.

“We heard rumors that the fire was started because of a homeless encampment, but we still do not know,” Medina said. “It’s a growing concern people in Los Angeles County have.”

Malibu residents said the homeless crisis plaguing the region, coupled with the devastating fire season, has left them more vigilant about clearing dry brush and other potential fire hazards.

Six months ago, Deborah Benton chopped down all but one tree in her Malibu backyard and recently installed more security cameras around her home.

“People here worry that when they camp out below these houses, a fire could start,” she said.

Her next-door neighbor, Linda Breakstone, pointed to the recently trimmed tree branches in the frontyard of her home on Colony View Circle, which overlooks the ocean.

“I thought that nearby trees would catch on fire last night,” Breakstone said. “If it weren’t for the firefighters and if the wind didn’t change direction, I don’t know if my house would still be here.”

A block away on Harbor Vista Drive, Kemal Ramezani said people have raised concerns about homeless people sleeping in the foothills.

“I ask my gardener every week to check the backyard to see if anyone has been there,” he said. “So far we don’t think anyone has trespassed into our property.”

Not far from Malibu Public Library, Arnold Morales skateboarded as his friends stood watching, blasting music on their portable radio.

Morales has been homeless for six years, most of which he’s lived in Malibu. He said about six people were camping out near the library when the fire started.

“The winds were so bad. If it weren’t for the firefighters I don’t know what would have happened,” he said.

Morales said that he’s aware of the homeless encampment near the library because his friend used to sleep there, but he avoids the area because it’s private property.

“I wouldn’t go live there,” he said. “Not everybody who is homeless is like that. It’s sad to see that happen.”