With December shaping up to be a fairly wet month across California — we’ve already seen more than two inches of precipitation in Santa Monica, with more predicted for later this week — it appears the worst of the 2021 wildfire season is behind us.
This year, CalFire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) estimated 2,569,009 acres burned statewide in more than 8,600 individual incidents recorded by the agency. Those fires burned more than 3,600 structures.
New numbers from the City of Malibu’s Woolsey rebuild are shedding light on just what it takes to rebuild those homes that are lost in California’s annual fire season. According to a recent report delivered to Malibu City Council about 13 percent of the homes that burned in the 2018 fire have been fully rebuilt so far, more than three years later.
In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire burned 488 single-family homes in Malibu, plus two apartment complexes containing an additional 18 residential units.
Many of those who were burned out of their homes relocated to neighboring communities in the Conejo Valley or Santa Monica, with many enrolling their kids in Samohi and embarking on the rebuild process while renting apartments here.
As of Dec. 23, only 63 of those 488 burned homes have been completely rebuilt, plus 12 out of the 18 apartment units. Another 151 homes were under construction, with a grand total of 328 permits approved by the planning department.
According to Malibu Environmental Sustainability Director / Building Official Yolanda Bundy, geotechnical and geological issues in the mountains and on the coast, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have represented stumbling blocks to the rebuilding process.
“These were challenging times. We were trying to figure out things, but things did not stop us,” Bundy told Malibu City Council during its Monday, Dec. 14, meeting.
Lumber shortages, individual site closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and city staffing shortages due to budget cuts all contributed to stalling the process.
According to Bundy, though the department remained open throughout the COVID-19 shut-downs, staffing shortages made worse by the pandemic have strained her department. Bundy requested an additional inspector and counter tech to alleviate the backlog.
“They’re fully committed and their heart and their mind is all in there,” Bundy said of her team. “But they need help. Even if they’re working and staying late, it is not a sustainable pace.”
Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti said council would be willing to prioritize increasing staffing, calling it a “Christmas list” for Bundy’s building safety staff, though no formal hiring approval was made at the meeting.
The first step in the rebuild process was debris removal, which began around December 2018 and finished around December 2019. Then came power restoration, permits for temporary homes (such as trailers) for those who wished to live on site during construction and a long list of permit reviews: the building safety, geology/geotechnical, environmental health, public works, planning and fire departments all need to sign off before building permits can be issued. Finally, when work is done, the building safety, public works, planning and fire departments do another round of inspections before the home is declared habitable.
“Each side is very complex and there are challenges along the way,” Bundy described.
In total, 347 property owners have embarked on the rebuild process. The other 141 have not. Even among those who have begun, Bundy said 47 families have had projects approved but have since more or less fallen out of the rebuild process and have not submitted plan checks.
When the fire first occurred, the city streamlined the process to make it easier for those who lost their primary residences to rebuild. City permitting fees were waived and the permit process was simplified for those wishing to rebuild at or close to their original size home.
Three years out from the fire, those properties that remain untouched are beginning to raise questions. Will they ever be rebuilt? Have they been sold to developers? Are their owners motivated to build or are they just part of a broad real estate portfolio?
“Of these 326 rebuilds that have planning [approval], do you know how many of them are principal residences of people who lost their homes?” Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Silverstein asked Bundy during the meeting.
“I’m hearing more and more that some of the property owners are selling their parcels, but I don’t have those numbers for you,” Bundy replied.
The City of Malibu later confirmed that, of the 488 burned parcels, 77 had changed ownership since the time of the fire. It was not clear how many, if any of those, had secured permits or begun construction before being sold.