On Oct. 10, Malibu resident and former Parks and Recreation Commissioner Roui Israel attended a work-related function at Leo Carrillo State Park that happened to be during a Red Flag Warning due to Santa Ana winds. The ranger on duty gave a safety talk to the work group, but never mentioned fire safety, according to Israel. When she brought it up, he told them, “If you have a campfire tonight, be careful with it.” Roui said she was shocked and alarmed that campground fires during a Red Flag Warning appeared to be allowed and decided to get to the bottom of it.
After communicating with Leo Carrillo camp aides, the captain at Fire Station 99 and City Manager Reva Feldman, she posted her experience on neighborhood social networking site Nextdoor—which generated nearly 100 comments from Malibu residents, plus nearly 100 reactions.
Clearly, she struck a chord with Malibu neighbors, who were upset about what she reported. Still reeling from last year’s Woolsey Fire and on-edge with the possibility of the season’s first Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) from Southern California Edison, residents sent Israel’s posting and the Nextdoor string of comments to various officials.
In the meantime, LA County Fire Station 99’s captain, Feldman and California State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap all apparently got in touch with each other to straighten out what was later explained by Sap as an internal “miscommunication” within state parks. Once the officials had all spoken to each other, no campfires were allowed at Leo Carrillo that evening.
Both Sap and Israel explained to The Malibu Times that the mix-up was due to an omission by the public safety superintendent for state parks—the person in charge of sending notice of campfire moratoriums to state parks campgrounds in the Santa Monica Mountains area. But, according to Israel, the superintendent’s mistake was compounded by other state parks staff not thinking critically.
“He was very candid and apologetic about this situation,” Israel wrote. “He mistakenly forgot to include Leo Carrillo in the ‘No Campfire’ notices that day and took absolute responsibility for his error. The rangers and park officials at the campground were just following orders from above, which was problematic as well. The rangers should have contacted their supervisors and questioned why fires were being allowed in red flag conditions.”
The public safety superintendent told Israel he’d gone home sick that day and had forgotten to put Leo Carrillo on the list for no campfires.
Sap added that Oct. 10-11 had been a busy time for everyone in State Parks, because the Wendy Fire in Ventura County had broken out and burned 90 acres.
“We’ve never had a campfire cause a wildfire—the fire rings at campsites are all well cleared,” Sap reassured. “We do our best to ensure there are no fires during red flag events. And since 99 percent of Leo Carrillo State Park burned in the Woolsey Fire, the fuel load is low and our rangers make frequent rounds.”
Sap went on to explain that state parks monitors conditions very closely. He said if conditions are extremely dry, campers are not allowed to have wood fires—they may be limited to burning sterno logs or charcoal briquettes—and campfires are not allowed at all in red flag conditions.
State parks has three campgrounds in LA County in the Santa Monica Mountains. Leo Carrillo, at 35000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, has 135 campsites for tents, trailers and RVs (up to 31 feet). All the campsites have fire rings and fires are only allowed there or in camp stoves. Campers are advised to check the sign near the entrance kiosk for the day’s fire level.
The other two local LA County campgrounds include Malibu Creek State Park off of Malibu Canyon Road and a small area near Topanga.
Although LA County has fire regulations forbidding open outdoor fires in all but a few specific cases, state parks has its own set of rules.
“We follow the fire rules of the California State Fire Marshall,” Sap said.
State parks campgrounds will become even more fireproof in the future. The day after this incident, on Oct. 11, Governor Newsom signed a new law prohibiting smoking and vaping in most areas of California State Parks and Beaches, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2020. The bill had previously been vetoed by Governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger.