First claim in Malibu wildfire is filed with state

Times Staff Writer

Paul and Sara Grisanti had only about an hour to load their cars with family photos and clothing before a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official ordered them to flee the Malibu fire zone Nov. 24.

Their house in Corral Canyon, a mile from Pacific Coast Highway, burned to the ground, and the Grisantis contend that the fire could have been prevented had the state acted to secure an area known for late-night revelry.

This week they filed the first of what their attorney expects will be more than 20 claims against the state of California related to the devastating blaze, which destroyed more than 50 homes and caused $100 million in losses.


Assuming that the state denies the claims, as it usually does, the claimants say they are prepared to file a lawsuit.

The Grisantis’ claim, seeking more than $3 million in damages, alleges that the state Department of Parks and Recreation knew that a large cave in the Corral Canyon portion of Malibu Creek State Park posed a fire danger because residents had often complained that it was a popular site for moonlight carousing and bonfires.

Authorities say a carelessly tended campfire near the mouth of the cave was the source of the fire, which was propelled by strong Santa Ana winds. Prosecutors say the campfire was illegally set in an area where a state of emergency had been declared after fires in October.

Five male suspects ranging in age from 18 to 27 have been charged with one count each of recklessly causing a fire resulting in injury and recklessly causing a fire that damaged an inhabited dwelling. Two of the suspects are scheduled to be arraigned April 3. The others are to appear April 21 for a preliminary hearing.

Attorneys for two of the men have said their clients did not set the campfire and thought they had extinguished it before leaving Malibu.

“The state has been maintaining an attractive nuisance up there for years,” said Paul Grisanti, 54, a real estate agent. “They’ve received numerous complaints from residents in the area about people partying up there and drinking . . . at night after the park is supposedly closed.”

Grisanti said he and others had been told by state parks personnel that the agency did not have the funds to station a full-time ranger in the area.

Roy Stearns, a Parks Department spokesman, said agency officials “had been talking to the neighbors and were sympathetic to their concerns.” He added that the department had stepped up patrols in the area and that a ranger had been at the cave site “an hour or two before the fire and found nobody there.”

He said the agency had not seen the claim and so would have no further comment.

James “Jay” Devitt, an attorney for the Grisantis and other fire victims, said the state has 45 days to consider the claim. He said he anticipated that the state would reject any such claims.

After that, Devitt said, “what we’re going to do is file the lawsuits pretty much immediately unless for some reason we want to see how the criminal case is going.”

In a news release, fire victims said they planned in their lawsuit to seek a court order that would require the state to install a gate half a mile from the end of Corral Canyon Road to help prevent easy access to the cave.

“Any time you sue the state, it’s an uphill battle,” said Devitt, who lives in Latigo Canyon. “Not only is there immunity for a lot of [situations], but you’ve got to convince the jury that our state, which appears to be having huge financial problems, is liable.” He added that he hoped the state would consider settling.