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Malibu inflamed by inmate plan

Residents oppose county's proposal to house prison fire crews at a local station after their camp burned in last year's blaze.

January 19, 2010|By Andrew Blankstein

Malibu residents are fighting a proposal to use a local fire station as quarters for prison inmate firefighters who need a new home after the Station fire burned through their camp in the Angeles National Forest.

Los Angeles County Fire Department officials are looking at the Malibu facility as a temporary replacement after an inmate firefighter camp atop Mt. Gleason was destroyed last summer by the largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history.

The blaze killed two county firefighters who were defending the camp.

Malibu is considered one of the county's highest-risk fire areas. But some residents don't like the idea of having inmates living in their neighborhood.

Actor Joshua Malina, who lives a quarter-mile from the site, said neighbors have been buzzing about the plans since Friday, when they received an anonymous flier with the headline "No Prison in Our Neighborhood" and urged them to immediately contact their elected representatives.

"If we shouldn't be worried, tell us what's going on," Malina said. "In a vacuum, of course, people are going to consider the worst-case scenario."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Monday that plans were "very much in the preliminary stage" -- so much so that he had not yet received a recommendation on it from County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.

He also emphasized that no plan would go forward without soliciting the public's views.

"The camps need to have community support," Yaroslavsky said. "If they don't want it, there are other alternatives that will have to be found."

There are five camps in Los Angeles County operated by county fire and state corrections officials in Acton, Saugus and in the San Gabriel Mountains, as well as Decker Canyon in Malibu, which is home to women inmate fire crews at Camp 13.

The fifth, Camp 16, was located on Mt. Gleason.

Officials said all the camps are considered low-security facilities and house nonviolent offenders who are serving time for offenses including burglary, drug possession, DUI, identity theft and welfare fraud.

The inmates, who volunteer for the fire duty, are taken from a pool of those who exhibit ideal behavior while in custody.

They undergo physical tests and training and are overseen by guards with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at the facilities.

Freeman said that his agency has been looking at nearly a dozen possible locations that could serve as a new home for Camp 16.

The Malibu station site was proposed last week, and officials are in the process of conducting an assessment into whether it fits the criteria of corrections officials.

The Malibu facility could be used for up to two years until a replacement is found or built, Freeman said.

"This is far from a done deal," Freeman said, noting that adding crews to Malibu would enhance brush clearance in the fire danger area, which currently has one crew.

Malibu has been the site of many of Los Angeles County's most disastrous fires over the last few decades.

These wildfires have claimed hundreds of homes and tens of thousands of acres in the Malibu area, where north-south-running canyons funnel Santa Ana winds through the mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.

Dozens of homes were lost in the last few years. But the damage has been even greater in the past.

In November 1993, a deadly fire raged for three days, killing three people and razing 268 homes from Calabasas through Topanga Canyon to Malibu. In October 1982, a wind-driven fire raced from Dayton Canyon in the west San Fernando Valley to the sea in Malibu, destroying 97 homes and burning 54,000 acres.

In October 1978, 230 homes and a church were lost in a series of eight near-simultaneous blazes that raged from Malibu to Agoura to Mandeville Canyon. The fires killed one man and burned 26,000 acres.

In September 1970, 10 people died and 403 homes were ravaged as several blazes combined into a single wall of flames 20 miles long, stretching from Newhall to Malibu.

Residents like Malina acknowledge that they live in a fire danger zone but said authorities have kept them in the dark about their plans for the station.

Malina, who co-starred in "The West Wing" and other TV shows, said officials should have brought residents into the process from the beginning.

"We're willing to see an upside if there is one, but right now we don't have the full set of facts," he said.

Meanwhile, Malina said his neighbors intend to make sure it never becomes a done deal.

A neighborhood meeting Monday was the start of what he says will be an organized campaign to defeat those plans.

"I speak for most people when I say the ultimate goal is to keep any type of correction facility from opening" in the neighborhood, Malina said.


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