L.A. County Fire Department ditches plan to house inmate firefighters in Malibu

The Los Angeles County Fire Department has scrapped a plan to use a fire station in Malibu as a temporary location to house inmate firefighters displaced by the massive Station fire.

Faced with opposition from residents, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman informed the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in a letter that his staff would be looking elsewhere.

Freeman did not specify why fire officials backed away from the proposal. But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that transforming the fire camp, now a workplace for 30 firefighters and staff, into housing for inmates did not make sense near a residential area.

“While these fire crews perform an important public safety service, housing them in or adjacent to a residential neighborhood defies common sense,” Yaroslavsky wrote in an e-mail to area residents.

Locals said they understood the risks of living in a fire danger zone but felt endangered by the possibility of having 80 inmate firefighters living at a fire station that would be turned into low-security housing.

“Overall, it feels like a significant and lightning-fast score for community activism,” said Joshua Malina, an actor and resident. “As soon as the information came in, we rallied with a very focused group effort to defeat this proposal.”

But not everyone was pleased.

Georgia Goldfarb, a physician who lives in Malibu, said she was behind fire officials’ plan to have additional personnel in the area given the fire risks, and was disappointed when she learned the proposal was abandoned so quickly.

“They are not only excellent crews during a fire, but work to reduce the threat through brush-clearance projects,” Goldfarb said of the inmate firefighters. “I assume this is in response to residents who feared something from these well-vetted and experienced crews. That is troubling. Can we not even have a dialogue based on information and not on unfounded fears?”

The rugged Malibu hills, where north-south-running canyons funnel Santa Ana winds through the mountains toward the Pacific Ocean, have been the site of many of Los Angeles County’s most disastrous fires, which in recent decades have destroyed hundreds of homes and charred tens of thousands of acres.

County fire and state corrections officials operate five fire camps in Acton, Saugus and the San Gabriel Mountains, as well as in Decker Canyon in Malibu, which is home to female inmate crews. The fifth was on Mt. Gleason until it was destroyed in the Station fire.