Time to Prepare for Fire Season 2020

Outgoing Fire Liaison Jerry Vandermeulen

While fire season 2020 in California technically goes year-round now, most residents and officials still think of September and October as being the start of it. Malibu’s worst fire ever, the Woolsey Fire, began Nov. 8, 2018. That means the time is now to get plans in place, clear flammable dry vegetation and make sure structures are as fireproof as possible.

The City of Malibu is offering help to residents prepare for wildfires by restarting its free Home Ignition Zone Assessment Program. The service is provided by Fire Safety Liaison Jerry Vandermeulen, a former Ventura County Fire captain who is certified in Assessing Structure Ignition Potential from Wildfire. He inspects residents’ properties by appointment and identifies where blowing wildfire embers could start fires, as well as ways to make a home more fire resistant, including modifying landscaping, sealing eaves and removing flammable materials. The process of making a home more fireproof is called “hardening.”

Because of the current pandemic stay-at-home orders, Vandermeulen is using personal protective equipment (known as PPE) and maintaining physical distancing when he goes out for inspections, and generally does not go inside the homes.

Vandermeulen said in a phone interview that the most common things he has to tell Malibu people after inspecting their homes is that, “It’s really important to keep it clean directly next to your house. In the first five feet, keep vegetation sparse and well-spaced, and avoid flammable materials.” 

In addition, vents into the attic or into the crawl space below the home “often need to be reinforced with a finer mesh material” to keep out embers. Another weak point tends to be not having a proper seal around all four sides of garage doors and letting an overabundance of vines or bougainvillea grow on the walls of the house.

He was especially concerned about burning embers in a Santa Ana wind-driven fire event, which can blow miles ahead of the fire front. Experts have told him that more than 50 percent of homes lost during a wildfire catch fire due to flying embers as opposed to direct flames or radiant heat, putting all homes in Malibu in potential danger.

“Common materials that become embers during wildfire include palm fronds, branches, tree bark and native vegetation,” Vandermeulen described. “Depending on fire intensity, wind speed and the size of materials that are burning, embers can be carried more than a mile ahead of the fire.” For that reason, even homes located some distance away from the actual flame front are vulnerable to ignition and complete destruction. 

“During a wildfire, thousands of embers can rain down on your home and property like hail during a storm,” he wrote. “If these embers land in receptive fuels or become lodged in something easily ignited on or near your house, the home may be in jeopardy of burning. This area is commonly referred to as the Home Ignition Zone.”

Vandermeulen has conducted more than 150 home wildfire assessments in Malibu since the city launched the program in August 2019 and is also available to meet with business owners, homeowner associations and property managers to offer guidance on brush clearance and hardening. 

In addition, he said he was happy to explain how to monitor wildfire conditions using the Pulsepoint app and other tools in advance of a wildfire, and how to prepare emergency and evacuation plans and supply kits.

To schedule an appointment, visit malibucity.org/firesafety  and click on Book an Appointment or contact Jerry Vandermeulen at 310.456.2489 ext. 387 or jvandermeulen@malibucity.org.

The City of Malibu is also urging all households to take the current online survey and provide input for the development of a citywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The survey takes about 20 minutes and asks respondents to rate or comment on all kinds of potential policies and procedures, including everything from whether all houses should be forced to upgrade to current fire standards to comments about evacuation routes, communication, vegetation management and defensible space. It may also help the city qualify for state and federal funding.

To take the survey, visit malibucity.org/wildfireplansurvey.