Malibu gears up for fire season

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Engineer John Steindlberger hooks up the hose to the fire hydrant after a long day of emergency calls on Saturday. Julie Ellerton / TMT

In the wake of triple-digit temperatures baking the Southland as fire season nears, fire department officials have been moving in scores of fire engines.

By Elano Pizzicarola / Special to The Malibu Times

The Los Angeles County Fire Department and Malibu emergency officials vow they stand locked and loaded for any potential fires as the fall brushfire season looms.

The fire department will brace for a potential fire by moving extra resources to Malibu in the event of high temperatures and low humidity, striving to bolster fire-fighting capabilities. City emergency officials are also touting a number of methods to alert the public in case of danger.

A Red Flag Warning arises when humidity falls below 15 percent and sustained winds gust over 25 miles per hour, usually prompting the fire department to send what they call a “strike team” to Malibu, and another to Agoura Hills.

“We work very closely with the National Weather Service. We monitor weather patterns,” said Maria Grycan, who serves as Community Services Liaison at the Carbon Canyon fire station.

One strike team is lead by a battalion chief and equipped with five fire engines, each staffed by four firefighters, totaling 21 extra staffers including the chief in Malibu. The Malibu battalion chief will decide where the department positions the engines, which can be anywhere in the city.

The City of Malibu focuses its efforts on communication, warning the public of fire threats, urging residents to develop a plan and gather their valuables.

“We have a lot of different ways of getting the word out to people,” said Emergency Services Coordinator Brad Davis.

Social media users can track updates by following Twitter account @MalibuEOC, liking the “City of Malibu Emergency Services” Facebook page or viewing the Nixle account bearing the same name. Non-Internet updates are available at (310) 456-9982 and on 1620 AM.

Incoming calls, emails and texts about potential fires can be received by subscribing to the Malibu Connect-CTY service.

In the event of residents being ordered to flee their homes, Malibu has yet to designate evacuation zones, as their location hinges on where the fire will break out.

“That’s why it’s so important to tune in to City of Malibu sources so that we can advise [where] the evacuation centers are going to be,” Davis said.

Residents can also prepare for brushfires by taking free CERT medical training classes at Malibu City Hall. The next round of lessons takes place in October, and those interested in attending should contact Davis at (310) 456-2489, extension 260, or bdavis@malibucity.org.

“It’s very, very popular,” he said,”You will learn an extraordinary amount of information about being prepared and taking care of each other in an emergency.”

Fire Department Inspector Quvondo Johnson brought up the lesser-known fire hazard of off-roading, explaining that hot dirt bikes engines near brush can trigger a brushfire.

“It absolutely has happened,” he said.

Johnson struggled to pinpoint specific instances, but a fire that raged in Ventura County last week was attributed to “vehicle exhaust,” the Los Angles Times reported.

The fire department requires Santa Monica Mountains’ residents to clear all brush within 200 feet from their house and inspects Malibu homes in June. If they find brush, the fire department reminds residents several times before they clear it themselves and fine the landowners.

It also calls for brush clearance through the “Ready! Set! Go!” program, which asks residents to remove brush near their home, gather their valuables during fires, and leave when the LA County Sheriff enters the neighborhood and orders them out.

Davis stressed the importance of Malibu following orders when it is hit with a fire, especially as the city’s population grows.

“It’s really foolish to think that you can just sit there with your arms folded and wait for somebody else to come to your rescue,” he said.

“People need to have a plan. They need to know where their evacuation routs are.”

Davis also suggested that families plan a meeting place in case the fire disables phone or Internet communication.

Looking back, October marks five years since the 2007 brushfire charred Malibu Canyon and burned Malibu Presbyterian Church to the ground. Davis assures that the City has since enhanced its fire handling by modernizing its mass communication system.

Another major improvement came when Corral Canyon residents, whose neighborhood suffered one of the 2007 fires, launched their own volunteer fire department, trained and equipped with their own fire engine.

“The homeowners up there really do understand that they need to have an active role their own protection,” he said.