‘Surviving the 2020 Fire Season’ with State Senator Henry Stern

State Senator Henry Stern (right) speaks to Keegan Gibbs, Malibu public safety commissioner (left) in October 2020 about home hardening while Jeremy Wolf, district director for Stern, records.

As the traditional season for Santa Ana winds begins, following two months of record-breaking heat and more than six months without rain, the danger of wildfire in the Malibu area has never been higher. To help residents protect their homes and communities, California State Senator Henry Stern last Friday, Oct. 16, began a series of virtual workshops on home hardening techniques and community resilience.  

He visited a local home in Malibou Lake that survived the 2018 Woolsey Fire, despite the fact that 84 houses in the neighborhood burned. The house was used as an example of how to fire-proof a home and create a fire-resistant zone around a property without spending a lot of money. Stern and his team live-streamed the walk-through on social media for constituents at home.

About six years ago, the homeowner, Debbie Larson, worked with Beth Burnam, co-president of the nonprofit North Topanga Fire Safe Council, to find out what she needed to do to make her home as fire-proof as possible. She now runs a fire safe council group in her own neighborhood. Both women were on hand to talk about the project. 

Burnam said the place to start when evaluating vulnerability to fire is always the house itself, and the first thing to look for is leaf litter on the roof. 

“A fire starts with small twigs and leaf litter,” she cautioned. “The media likes to show us walls of flame, but most houses burn down from embers and sparks.”

As a result of the roof inspection, Larson elected to completely remove the gutters from her house “because they were always filled with leaves.” Her other alternatives would have been to always keep the gutters clear of leaf litter in preparation for fire, or put gutter covers on to keep flying embers out. 

If a house has wooden eaves sticking out below the roof, they need to be boxed in. In addition, any cracks or gaps on a home’s exterior must be filled in to prevent embers from entering.

New fire codes require all vents on a house to be covered with quarter-inch mesh, but eighth-inch mesh is even more effective against embers. Larson said to buy a roll of “quick mesh” at a hardware store for about $25, and that’s generally enough to do the entire house, including all attic and crawl space vents. Installing the mesh yourself usually only takes one afternoon.

Next, it’s time to inspect the first five feet of space around the entire house. Burnam said that during a major wildfire, “A snowfall of embers would be hitting the house and then falling to the ground,” so nothing flammable can be there. For that reason, she recommended putting pavers the first five feet out from the house. Planters and movable metal lawn furniture can be put on top of the pavers, but must be moved away from the house if there is a threat of fire.

Landscaping is allowed, and Larson’s property has a series of planted “islands” edged with large rocks. She also has a Coast Live Oak tree or two—native trees that are naturally fire resistant. One side of a live oak in the front yard was scorched from the Woolsey Fire, but the tree remained still alive and well.

Once all fire prevention measures are taken, homeowners still need to be diligent about maintaining fire resistance—things like blowing leaf litter away, pulling out grass growing in planters and filling in new cracks.

Kate Dargan Marquis, board member of the California Fire Safe Council and former state fire marshal, and Kevin Johnson, assistant chief, forestry, LA County Fire Department, both appeared remotely and recommended fire safe councils in every neighborhood. Anyone interested in starting one should go to cafiresafecouncil.org.  

Stern is also working on some new programs. He said he would like to see the state certify homes that meet resiliency standards, and is working with the state insurance commissioner to get insurance companies to lower rates for neighborhoods with fire safe councils and certified homes. 

He was also trying to get hardware stores in fire prone areas to “put together a home hardening aisle” and is promoting the new California Climate Action Corps., a program led by California Volunteers, Office of the Governor.

To watch the video of this event, go to sd27.senate.ca.gov/videos or go to Senator Henry Stern’s page on Facebook. A second event was recorded live on Oct. 20 and is also available.