In the line of wildfire

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A landscape fire-retardant spray system, stone deck and heavy timber trellis were all planned in helping to keep fire away from the Parkers' Malibu home, designed by architect Clive Dawson. Photo by Clive Dawson

When building or landscaping a home, having a plan in defense against wildfires is the No. 1 priority. Access to auxiliary firefighters and “curb appeal” helps, too. This is fifth in a series of stories on wildfires.

By Vicky Shere / Special to the Malibu Times

With property on a ridge between a canyon and the ocean-the traditional path of wildfires-one can’t be too careful in building one’s dream home. Particularly when summer starts with “red flag” warnings of fire danger in Southern California and the move-in date is after the Santa Ana winds – the usual wildfire catalysts – begin blowing, usually following Labor Day.

That’s why Hutch and Rebecca Parker have included an extra fire hydrant, a pool pump and a staircase between the driveway and the house in the design of their Malibu home by architect Clive Dawson.

The Parker’s insurance company, AIG, also recommended a landscape fire retardant spray system, which will also be installed on the West Malibu property.

“We want to enjoy the beauty of the area while being mindful of wildfires,” said Rebecca, who grew up in Malibu. “That’s why we did our homework on keeping fire away from the house.”

The system, by Oregon-based Firebreak Spray Systems LLC, features: a self-contained, 315-gallon, epoxy-lined tank filled with the people/plant and animal friendly fire-retardant manufactured by Phos-Check, which has been in use by the U.S. Forest Service for more than 40 years (the fire-retardant changes the burning process of brush); eight “Big Gun” sprinklers set 30 feet from the perimeter of the house; four additional “Big Guns” set 120 feet from the house along the property line of the six-acre parcel, that can spray fire retardant approximately 65 feet wide and 350 feet long; and a wildfire sensor which detects fires up to a half a mile away, so firefighters can be mobilized early. The sensor is designed to detect wind-driven power line arcing, the cause of many wildfires.

The system requires no outside source of power or water, said Firebreak Systems spokesman Eddie Hosch. Property owners can activate the system manually or remotely by phone and the wildfire sensor activates both the spray system and a dialer that calls up to five different telephone numbers.

With firefighters dispatched across the county on a moment’s notice-as was the case last week-Firebreak Systems customers can have the added peace of mind of the company’s auxiliary firefighting services. At the customer’s request, the company will send its trucks and personnel to preemptively spray the fire retardant, Hosch said. The truck drivers are certified by the U.S. Forest Service-sanctioned National Wildland Firefighting Academy. While the company has an exclusive contract with AIG, they are referred by Chubb and Fireman’s Fund and is available for consultations, Hosch said.

Curb appeal

No matter how much auxiliary protection you have, “the best things you can do to keep fire from destroying your home are brush clearance and fuel modification,” said Jim Jordan, captain of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Forestry Division in Agoura.

Brush clearance and fuel modification are required to create a defensible space. But because firefighters only have to take “reasonable” risks to save lives and property, property owners should do everything possible to have “curb appeal to the San Francisco Fire Department,” which might be in Malibu during statewide wildfires, Jordan said.

Besides brush clearance and fuel modification, curb appeal includes a visible address, signs indicating water and pool outlets, and vehicular access within 150 feet of the exterior, Jordan said.

The Parkers’ “curb appeal” includes a second fire hydrant, a pool pump and a staircase connecting the driveway to the house, to provide firefighters with secondary access to the house and water supplies.

Planning

Protecting a house against fire is a complicated process, said architect Dawson, who has worked in Malibu for 30 years. Many professionals and agencies-firefighters, civil and soils engineers, geologists, biologists and archeologists-have to sign off before an architect’s plans are approved.

“There’s a lot more to protecting a house against fire than what architects do,” Dawson said. “Landscape is very much of an involvement.”

He urges property owners to get a fuel modification consultation, even if structures are not being remodeled or rebuilt.

Sometimes agencies have conflicting goals, which have to be resolved, said Michelle Newman, the Calabasas-based landscape architect who designed the Parkers’ landscaping.

In the Parkers’ case, the California Coastal Commission and city biologist were somewhat at odds over the extent of the landscaping.

The Fire Department wanted as barren a landscape as possible while the Coastal Commission and city wanted to hide the house and preserve native vegetation, Newman said. The compromise was planting oak and sycamore trees in a compressed middle fuel modification zone. That Zone B is normally 20 to 100 feet from the house; in the Parkers’ case, the zone extended 20 to 80 feet from the house.

Parenthetically, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is updating wildfire hazard area maps to support the new state building code going into effect next year.

State Fire Department spokesperson June Iljana said California will have 401,000 acres of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones compared to the current 357,000 listing-nearly a 9 percent increase.

The Parkers’ home is in the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.

“We’re at the firebreak but you have to deal with wildfires no matter where you live in Malibu,” Rebecca Parker said of her three years of research. “The most important thing to do is to have a plan.”

More information on fuel modification can be obtained by contacting the Los Angeles County Fire Department Fire Plan Unit at 818.890.5783.