Spring may have been a little late this year, as the song says, but the fire season has arrived early.
As of Tuesday, more than 59,000 acres have burned in Southland fires that began Saturday, as firefighters battle to control five blazes raging in the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests.
Two engine companies from this area, both from Station 144 in Westlake Village, were sent to Lake Arrowhead.
The Santa Ana winds that traditionally drive wildfires from the Valley to Malibu have not begun, but the Santa Monica Mountains are heavy with brush that grew thick during El Nino-driven rains last year, then browned early this season from La Nina’s drought. “The lack of rain has created a hazardous year if the winds come,” said Malibu Fire Capt. Jerry Reese.
That worry was focused by the recent water-main rupture that left portions of the city without running water for four days and depleted reserves.
“We had four fire department water tenders standing by, and the city of Malibu had their own, also,” Reese said.
Fire prevention efforts have been stepped up this year, and the results are encouraging, Reese said. “We’re probably 97 percent completed with inspections. We’ve had a great success rate with people this year. They’re starting to understand what we’re trying to do.”
Inspections of houses started June 1. Reese said he tries to contact owners ahead of time so they can walk around the structure with the inspectors. “If they can’t, we want them to call us back to follow up. We leave an official brush inspection report.”
The overall brush clearance perimeter is 200 feet from the house, and within the first 50 feet, all weeds and grass (except for lawns) must be cut down to the earth, and all trees and shrubs “limbed up” off the ground about one third of their height to reduce what firefighters call ladder fuel. Also, a 10-foot clearance around LPG tanks is required.
“We also advise, if they have a lot of ornamental vegetation around the house, that they remove any native plants that are mixed in to reduce the fuel load,” Reese said.
Native plants are favored for their drought tolerance, but most are more flammable than ornamentals. “If they want to keep the natives, they may have to take out some ornamentals. Laurel Sumac is the most flammable, and there’s a lot of that around,” Reese said. “If it’s within 50 feet of the structure, we have them remove it totally.”
But inspectors take into account what the vegetation is doing for hillside stabilization. “In some cases, instead of removing, we have them “lollypop” the plants. That means stripping the lower branches and leaving just the vegetation on top,” Reese said. That saves the root system, and the top foliage breaks up the rain so it doesn’t erode the soil.
If work needs to be done, inspectors give a 30-day notice. If there’s been no response and no work has been done, the fire department sends out its brush-clearing unit.
“They try again, and they issue the fines, depending on how much they need to do,” Reese said. There’s an automatic $200 administrative penalty, then a $231 abatement enforcement cost. “If they still don’t remedy the problem, agricultural weed abatement goes out and posts the property. If that warning isn’t answered, then they do the work and bill the homeowner for the cost recovery.”
Reese said the emphasis is educational, not punitive. “Our goal is to involve the resident, and to make a defensible space for ourselves and a refuge for the resident if they can’t get out.”
Wildfire protection also means water storage. In addition to drinking water, residents can store water in 55-gallon drums, available at some hardware stores that sell earthquake preparedness supplies. “I’d have a couple of those blue plastic drums sitting in the garage, and you can get a little hand pump that goes inside the drum,” Reese said. “I was surprised they [the water district] only had a 24-hour back up in the water supply.”
Fire inspectors also check the house for holes or vents into attics, where embers could enter and ignite the interior. These should be blocked off with the smallest mesh available, so air can get in but embers can’t. Clearing dried leaves out of rain gutters and moving anything flammable away from the house is also important.
On days when the Santa Anas blow and the fire danger is high, residents should put flammable patio furniture inside the garage before leaving for work. Even chairs with aluminum frames and plastic webbing can burn. “As it melts, little flaming balls of plastic drip down and can ignite the deck,” Reese said. “And old boxes, even trash cans, that might be stacked up against the house should go inside. And close all the windows.”