One year later, Malibu more prepared for next fire

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The Sesnon-Porter Ranch wildfire of last week, which scorched some 14,000 acres and looked at one point like it could continue creeping westward to the ocean, gave more than a few Malibu residents some anxious moments, coming so close upon the one-year anniversary of the Canyon Fire that destroyed eight Malibu structures, including the Malibu Presbyterian Church.

But if experience is the best teacher, Malibu has gotten a full tutorial over the past year, with city leaders, public protection agencies and private citizens taking a number of measures to mitigate or eliminate danger from future wildfires.

“The Malibu Arson Watch volunteers were the first to advise me of the Porter Ranch fire,” City Emergency Preparedness Director Brad Davis said. “They listen in to Fire Department radios and let me know what’s going on. An alert populace is one of our best protections during Red Flag and high-wind warnings.”

Among the steps taken to improve and expand communication during emergencies is the Emergency Notification or so-called “Reverse 911” system, designed to alert the community of impending danger. The city has compiled a database for all residents and businesses that subscribe, who can be instantly contacted should the need arise.

“We’ve used the reverse phone system three times this year,” Davis said. “With the fire in Malibu Canyon on July 4, we actually used it to contact people and tell them not to panic. So the system has double benefits as well.”

Davis also noted that the city is using e-blasts to update residents on fire concerns, that his Community Emergency Response Training, or CERT, seminars are heavily attended, that local Home Owners Associations are banding together to prepare residents for fire season and that the city hasn’t had to push local citizens to clear brush from their properties.

The city has also moved a lot of its Internet functions to a site out of state, so critical communication would not be affected by a fire. And the city is working to install a new generator to provide electrical back-up in an emergency.

“Bottom line is it’s fire season,” Davis said. “You have to be ready, you have to have a plan and you have to rely on yourselves. And remember, there is nothing in these mountains that is worth dying for.”

Public Safety Commissioner Susan Tellem and a self-described activist when it comes to fires in Malibu said her experiences of last fall prompted her to write an information summary for neighborhoods interested in developing a quick-reference phone tree.

“I suggest that neighborhoods form a fire safe council like those at firesafecouncil.org,” Tellem said. “And for those of us up in the canyons, you must prepare to take care of your large animals in the event of a fire.”

Tellem recommends keeping water troughs full at all times, keeping important personal documents in one place that can be easily grabbed in an evacuation and renting goats to eat down fire fuel.

“And keep your car full of gas,” she emphasized.

Fire Department Battalion Chief Terry DeJournett said that a number of steps had been implemented to prepare better for fires, from increased availability of equipment to staffing procedures.

“We’ve taken a critical look at staffing and have added 24 additional staff members for certain days,” DeJournett said. “When the county Burn Index (a system that rates wind, heat, humidity and fuel availability) goes up, so do our staff [level].”

DeJournett said that they have deployed new Type 3 Strike Team engines, with four-wheel drives designed to get up into remote canyon areas so that strike teams are a part of regular patrols.

“And that’s just in the Malibu area,” DeJournett said. “Management and staffing have been upped throughout the county, facilitating more immediate communication.”

Capt. Tom Martin of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station said his staff has undergone extensive training on how to survive fires, including evacuation procedures. He lauded the Corral Canyon Arson Watch volunteers who are keeping a sharp eye on the source of last November’s devastating Corral Fire that destroyed nearly 53 Malibu homes.

“This volunteer group, that goes out on patrol, is an outcropping of the Corral Canyon Fire Prevention group we’ve been meeting with for several months,” Martin said. “We also helped sponsor a Los Angeles Fire Expo in Malibu and held an open house for CERT training to showcase preparedness.

“Our deputies have been trained in tracking systems and we updated traffic plans for evacuations that the county tapped during the Sesnon fire recently,” Martin continued. “We take these disasters very seriously and we want training principals to take over during emergencies.”

Ultimately, Martin, DeJournett and Davis emphasized that residents must take individual opportunity to avoid fire disasters and prepare responsibly to act should wildfires occur again.

Further information on the Emergency Notification System, neighborhood fire preparedness and CERT seminars can be found on the city Web site at www.ci.malibu.ca.us.