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Malibu will race to rebuild

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Mayor’s first priority is to replace homes as quickly as possible

Fast-Spreading Hill and Woolsey Fires Force Evacuations In California’s Ventura County
A house catches fire on November 9 in Malibu.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Since wildfire barreled through the Malibu area four weeks ago, searing national parkland, leveling businesses, charring state beaches, and destroying 443 homes in Malibu’s city’s limits, experts have posed the question: Should Malibu rebuild?

The answer from City Hall is an unequivocal “yes.”

The Malibu City Council will vote Tuesday night on a set of measures aimed at helping residents quickly rebuild homes annihilated by the Woolsey Fire.

The measures call for hiring contractors to bolster the planning department and loosening zoning rules to “provide flexibility for residents who are forced to rebuild.”

How exactly the rules will be loosened still needs to be fleshed out, but it could mean allowing homeowners to put trailers on their properties and build replicas of their homes with older features grandfathered in, even if they don’t conform with today’s building codes.

Malibu Mayor Rick Mullen says his first priority is to rebuild homes as speedily as possible.

“It’s definitely our intention that people not have to be subject to the normal delays and bureaucratic hassles that they would they be if they were building a house for the first time,” he says.

Mullen, a full-time captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, says he’s open to tweaking building codes to make homes more resistant to fire—but not at the expense of rebuilding rapidly.

“It could be this is a wonderful time to say we’ve got some serious issues... [But] I’m more interested in getting people moving forward,” he says.

Mullen says he expects residents will choose to fireproof their homes on their own, maybe choosing to plant trees farther away from structures and using concrete instead of wood.

The question of how quickly residents would be allowed to rebuild was top-of-mind even as flames were still licking Malibu’s hillsides. At a town hall on November 13, when the blaze was just 40 percent contained, a resident asked city officials whether building regulations would be relaxed.

When city manager Reva Feldman said she didn’t have the authority to change the permitting process without approval from the City Council, the crowd booed.

But even if the City Council makes it easier to rebuild, Tuesday’s vote is just the starting point.

All of the properties that burned will need to be completely cleared, starting with hazardous waste—that’s everything from nail polish to batteries.

State and federal authorities will inspect burned areas before clean up gets underway, and consultants from CalRecycle, which coordinates hazardous and debris removal from wildfire-scarred areas, are already on the ground assessing the scope of the damage, according to spokesperson Lance Klug.

He says it took the agency about 12 weeks to complete that process in Ventura County after the Thomas Fire, which ignited in December of 2017.

In the past 12 months, the city of Ventura, where 524 single-family homes were destroyed, has issued 143 permits to rebuild but no one has moved back in. As many as a half-dozen homes might be finished in time for Christmas, says community development director Jeff Lambert.

It’s been frustrating for many Ventura residents, he says, even though city officials have hustled in the same way Malibu intends to: with the help of consultants and by giving residents some flexibility on more desirable features, like taller ceilings.

“It’s a scary, foreign process,” Lambert says. “Most of these homeowners didn’t sign up for building homes from scratch.”

That’s why Malibu’s mayor is warning residents to be patient.

“I run into a lot of people who want to get the ball rolling, but it’s going to take a little while,” he says. “We are dedicated to making this as painless as possible… but it’s not going to be pain-free.”