Drought: Severe drought increases the fire danger associated with illegal camps. Courtesy image

For the second autumn in a row, Malibu has approved a program authorizing homeless encampment clearances due to fire danger in the city’s parched hills.

During a city council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 27, Malibu leaders approved a measure “Declaring the Existence of a Local Emergency and Initiating a Program for Reducing the Risk of Fires Associated with Individuals Living Unhoused and Otherwise Engaged in Unpermitted and Regulated Camping,” in line with a similar move that first went into effect in September 2021 and ran through early January 2022. 

“The LFM, or live fuel moisture, coupled with Red Flag [conditions] pose a clear and imminent danger,” Assistant City Manager Joseph Toney told council members on Tuesday, citing moisture levels around 63%. When measured moisture level in live plants in the mountains dips below 60%, conditions are considered critically dangerous for wildfire spread. “Most vegetation fires in the Santa Monica Mountains are caused by human activity,” Toney added.

Toney clarified that the rules do not “criminalize sitting, lying or sleeping in public when a person has no access to temporary shelter,” but is meant specifically to target encampments in the dry brush of the Malibu hills.

Malibu City Council voted unanimously, 4-0, in favor of the program, with Council Member Mikke Pierson not present at the meeting; the same council voted 5-0 to approve the policy in 2021.

When the policy was initially adopted last fall, city staff anticipated potential litigation, but council members and then-interim City Attorney John Cotti said they believed it would hold up to legal scrutiny. So far, challenges have not emerged.

The policy came weeks after LA County approved a similar rule in August 2021.

“Despite a significant increase in fire prevention efforts, there are still portions of the County within the designated VHFHSZ [very high fire hazard severity zones] where, because of location, access, terrain, and fuels, the risk of a fire starting and rapidly spreading remains incredibly high,” according to the August 2021 LA County Supervisors’ motion. “As climate change extends and exacerbates our local fire season, particular areas of the Unincorporated County pose too much risk of harm or loss of life for residents, [homeless people], outreach teams, and first responders, to allow encampments to remain. 

“As we enter what may be the most devastating fire season on record, it’s important that we move with urgency to reduce the risk of occurrence and spread,” the motion, authored by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Kathryn Barger — representing the two largest rural areas of the County — continued. “To mitigate the risk of fires, LACoF should prohibit homeless encampments in Unincorporated County designated VHFHSZ’s. All necessary efforts to connect [homeless people] in these regions to resources should be led by LAHSA’s best practices for addressing street encampments, ensuring that no individual is criminalized simply for not having a home.”

Earlier this month, homeless count results showed Malibu homelessness dropped 66% between January 2020 and February 2022. The January 2020 count of 239 unhoused people was the highest number of homeless residents tallied since the count began, and consistent efforts by The People Concern — a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that supplies workers under contract to assist homeless people in Malibu — and LA County Sheriff’s specialists, together with two large encampment clearances, are being credited with the sharp decline in the total number of homeless people counted in Malibu this year: 81.

emily@smdp.com