Preparing for the Worst

Nearly 150 Malibu residents packed into a meeting area at Los Angeles County Fire Camp 8 on Sunday morning for a community awareness session on fire preparedness.

Aimed at residents who live nearby in the Lower Rambla, Sea View Estates and Saddlepeak areas, the meeting was designed for neighbors to get armed with the latest news and tips from area firefighters in preparation for brush fire season, with its highest levels in the fall.

The three neighborhoods near Camp 8 that participated Sunday lie in a problematic area for fighting fires where wild land and urban activity interface along with only a few roads for ingress and egress make evacuations difficult.

Longtime residents spoke about the devastating 1993 and 2007 fires, giving a jolt to newbies about what to expect in an emergency. For instance, electricity and cell service may go out in the remote area.

A 30-year homeowner suggested it may be wise to keep a land line for communication. Fire Captain Michael Bolding from Fire Station 70 at Carbon Canyon suggested if all your services are out, “That’s a time to evaluate if you should still be at home.”

Those who spoke Sunday emphasized a proactive approach with the number one priority of brush clearance. All dead wood needs to be removed within 200 feet of structures. Trees must be trimmed with a five-foot minimum separation from roofs.

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Chimneys require a 10-foot separation. Reduce hedges to a maximum of eight feet, and a five-foot-wide walking path must be provided around an entire structure.

“It’s a partnership between residents and fire services,” Bolding explained. “If your property has defensible space, we can get in there and do a bang up job. If there’s no defensible space, not only does it affect the fire department, it affects the surrounding neighbors as well because we all know that the Santa Monica Mountains has crazy topography.

“If your area is not cleared and not defendable it affects the neighbors. It causes that burning to be intense. We need adequate clearance.” 

According to Bolding, the fire department cites property owners for brush clearance noncompliance. After a 30-day notice, a brush clearance unit will clear the property at $2,500 per day with the fine transferred to the owner’s property tax bill. 

Bolding urged homeowners to “have a plan for your individual home and planned route to get out of the neighborhood. Make sure drapes and anything combustible is away from your windows; help make it defendable and safe. Unfortunately it rests on all of our shoulders. We have multiple hurdles to jump over. That’s why I say it’s a partnership with the communities. We’re going to do our best.”

Regarding evacuating, Bolding added, “You get to make your own decisions, even if they’re bad. If you choose to stay with your home, be aware of the problems of trying to evacuate after the fire is engaged. We don’t have nimble vehicles. We need space. Have your clearance done, your belongings set and a plan to move out before you’re asked to evacuate. People will often wait until it’s too late.”

Waiting to evacuate can bring on more trouble, especially on narrow Malibu mountain roads that can barely accommodate two cars side by side. Neighbors spoke of residents fleeing previous fires driving internal combustion engine cars and having their vehicles stall due to heavy smoke that renders them inoperable.  

Stalled cars stuck on roadways hinder fire engines trying to get to emergencies. Battery-powered cars, however, can drive through heavy smoke.

“You have to have a list of what you’re going to take,” resident Scott Dittrich said. Having been through a couple of fires, Dittrich warned not to panic but “be ready.” 

Jane Kagon, who organized Sunday’s event, was inspired by the Corral Canyon neighborhood and its recent acquisition of engine #271.

“Whatever happens, the more information people have, the better,” she said.

Homeowners were encouraged to sign up for City of Malibu alerts at malibucity.org/disasternotifications, apply for a Malibu dolphin emergency access car decal (available through the city for $5) and to download a new phone app, PulsePoint, using the LA County area Division 7 to receive alerts about local emergencies.

“The community has to be engaged,” Kagon pointed out. “This is a collaboration with the fire department. We as a community have to organize. It’s about community and enforcing the roles we can play in assisting first responders.”

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