Package ran live Feb. 7, on NewsWaves 32.
In mid-January, Malibu lifted its emergency order allowing the city to immediately clear any unhoused encampments in fire-prone areas, which began in September, Public Safety Liaison Luis Flores said. Mayor Bruce Silverstein was the only person to vote against this motion, which he said targeted two related issues Malibu has been facing for years — unhoused encampments and camping.
Official fire season ended in January, but Silverstein said because Malibu is one of the few areas in California that is considered a very high fire hazard severity zone, wildfire risk never truly disappears.
“In my view, until Mother Nature does something different or the state does something different in the Santa Monica Mountains for wildfires, we are in a state of emergency,” Silverstein said.
The Correlation Between the Unhoused Population and Wildfires
The emergency order Malibu had in place allowed city officials to remove unhoused encampments from public property if the encampments posed a wildfire risk during the usual fire season, which typically runs from September through January, Flores said.
In recent years, Flores said the city’s efforts to reduce the number of unhoused individuals in Malibu have naturally trickled into efforts to reduce fire risk, and vice versa.
“There’s a direct correlation with homeless count numbers and fires, so we try to keep the number as low as possible,” Flores said.
Because unhoused individuals need to keep warm during the winter months, it is common for them to start fires for heat — which Flores said can erupt into something much larger. Another cause of unintended wildfires is smoking in fire-prone areas.
Encampments in particular pose a fire risk because they contain a lot of flammable material, Flores said. Tents, portable cooking supplies and bikes are a few examples of materials that are more likely to catch and spread fire.
Flores said in 2021, there were 157 unhoused individuals in Malibu — down from 239 in 2020 — and unhoused encampments caused 23 fires. In 2022, there were 81 unhoused individuals and only four fires.
In addition to removing encampments from fire-prone areas, Flores said city officials ensure members of the unhoused population in the Santa Monica Mountains understand the risks of open flames and other hazardous behaviors so they can protect themselves year-round.
“We have ongoing conversations with these individuals living in these brushes and these canyons and those hillside areas,” Flores said. “We make sure that they’re educated.”
The Annual Homeless Count Process
The 2023 Homeless Count occurred Jan. 25 — at the end of fire season. This was just weeks after the city dropped the emergency order. That same week, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors also cleared a large encampment at Surfrider Beach and a fire-prone area in Malibu Creek, all resulting in fewer unhoused individuals.
This count was the eighth time the City of Malibu has participated, with Flores and Public Safety Director Susan Dueñas as the site coordinators.
The Los Angeles Homeless Safety Authority sponsors this count throughout the greater Los Angeles area and then puts the results through a months-long analysis before releasing official numbers during the summer, Flores said.
Members of various law enforcement offices, The People Concern, the Homelessness Task Force, the Public Safety Commission and 23 volunteers from the general public conducted the count, Flores said. After meeting at Malibu City Hall, Flores said the LAHSA provides everyone with an app to tally people and track their observations from their phones.
“They’re tracking individuals, families, tents, individuals living in their vehicles, RVs,” Flores said. “Basically every element of people experiencing homelessness.”
The app shows maps of the census tracts in the city, and Flores said he assigns those participating in the count to drive around different areas. At the end of the day, Flores submits the data LAHSA for processing.
Action Taken to Reduce the Unhoused Population and Wildfires in Malibu
Silverstein said part of his campaign when he ran for City Council in 2020 was to reduce the number of unhoused individuals in an effort to protect all residents of Malibu. He said two measures aimed at achieving this goal are indirect but impactful — an ordinance reducing RV parking and the new low-impact camping ordinance.
“Malibu can’t fix homelessness — I don’t think anyone in the country without the whole country working on it together can fix homelessness,” Silverstein said. “But we want to protect the residents from the problems that arise from people living unhoused throughout the city and public.”
One of those problems is wildfires, Silverstein said, which is why he is concerned about the dropping of the emergency order. Legally, he said an emergency order should remain in place until the threat is no longer present, so the city should have kept the order to protect both unhoused individuals and other residents around the city from a year-round fire threat.
“Fire danger is omnipresent 24/7, 365 days a year,” Silverstein said.
The best way to reduce the unhoused population and wildfires is to ensure everyone who lives in Malibu is aware of the resources the city offers — such as shelters, free clothing and mental health services, Flores said.
“We’ve been making great strides on that front,” Flores said. “We’re very proactive and service-oriented when addressing homelessness, which has been having a lasting impact.”
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