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When Fire and Vulnerability Collide

The Canyon Chronicle

Balancing Fire Safety and the Needs of Unhoused Individuals
By The Topanga Town Council
Posted: November 27, 2020, 1:30 p.m.

Topanga and Malibu for many years have experienced fires that were related to open fires in the area but recent statistics show that the risk is increasing due to climate change and the growing number of the homeless living in our wildfire-prone areas, whether due to COVID-19 or other unfortunate events.

Finding the balance between public safety and meeting the needs of all who live here—housed and unhoused—is a universal conundrum not easily solved. What can we do to find sustainable solutions here at home?

A Topanga group has formed to develop policy interventions to address the many issues surrounding homelessness and public safety. This informal group currently consists of the Topanga Town Council, TCEP, local nonprofits serving the unhoused, government representatives, and field volunteers. Their goal is to promptly address, holistically and compassionately, the challenges and risks that have resulted from the increasing numbers of the homeless.


In January 2020, Malibu participated in LA County’s annual homeless count coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This included assistance from the Sheriff’s Department, local volunteers, and others. The number counted in Malibu was the highest ever: 240.

Topanga’s count, conducted by local volunteers, is estimated to be around 100, far higher than the official LAHSA count for the area, which is hampered by a methodology that was not designed for a rural hillside environment like ours.

In March the pandemic hit and so was the economy. Homelessness added a new dimension.

For the past eight months, Topanga volunteers, working with Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, have provided meals, masks, and toiletries for those needing help during these trying times. This effort has distributed thousands of meals to assist Topangans—housed and unhoused—with food insecurities due to Covid-19 and/or an unreliable housing situation. The county has other vital social services available, including a winter shelter program to help those needing a safe and warm place to stay during cold nights. Volunteers are working to bridge our vulnerable population to those services.


Homelessness is not going away; Topanga has been addressing it for decades and has learned that in addition to our humanitarian goals, we must always prioritize public safety.

The increased risk of fire starts is of great concern for the safety of the community---especially those stemming from outdoor fires and started by campers, tourists, or those living in encampments. The latter is caught between a rock and a hard place, relying on fires in order to cook and/or stay warm while also creating a potentially uncontainable conflagration each time they light a match in extremely flammable brush.

Because of the complexity of the situation, we are reaching out to the community—local volunteer organizations, businesses, volunteers, and residents—to collect data and offer suggestions to the county toward finding sustainable solutions to help those in need while protecting the community’s safety. To accomplish these goals, we will be reaching out over the next weeks in various ways, including online responses, social media, and OneTopanga. We look forward to your participation. Stay tuned.

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