Recovery from January fire ongoing

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The replanting of Bluffs Park began several months ago, with native shrubs and plants being used to limit the need for watering. Photo by Laura Tate

Residents of the Malibu Road fire are still in the rebuilding process.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The continuing drought conditions that are sucking the moisture out of anything green that grows in the area present a distinct challenge for Malibu residents, in light of the community’s particular isolation and topographical difficulties. And, following the Jan. 8 fire that began at Bluffs Park and swept down the hill to burn five beachfront homes and damage six others on Malibu Road, local officials, as well as citizenry, are aggressively fighting the odds of another expensive and heart-breaking conflagration.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department has sent letters to local residents, underscoring the dangers current weather conditions present: “I am writing to advise you about… the important role that you play as a homeowner living in a very high fire hazard severity zone,” wrote Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.

The advisory goes on to outline brush clearance tips, the need for emergency evacuation plans and personal preparation should a home be threatened by fire (see sidebar).

“In January, conditions were just ripe for a major fire,” Detective Jim Gonzales, spokesman for the county Sheriff’s Department, said. “Windy and dry, with a very low moisture content in the shrubbery.”

With the lack of rain, he said conditions are even more hazardous now.

The Sheriff Department’s Arson and Explosive Detail investigated the cause of the January fire, which was judged to have ignited close to Pacific Coast Highway.

“We heard of allegations that perhaps the fire came from homeless encampments in the Park,” Gonzales said. “But we checked and that didn’t seem to be the case. It started right at the roadside and probably from a passing motorist’s cigarette.”

The fire destroyed the dense vegetation below Bluffs Park, known for its meandering paths into the tall shrubbery, and left the landscape looking like some eerie, blackened set piece for a sci-fi movie. Property damage from the fire ran into tens of millions of dollars from the homes lost and damaged on Malibu Road. No one was seriously injured but residents Al Ehringer and Christina Carmel, whose home was completely destroyed, lost one of their four dogs.

The multi-million dollar homes facing the beach suffered more extensive injury, including the home of actress Suzanne Somers, which was also completely destroyed by the fire.

Malibu resident Ashley Lewis’ main house was spared, but the fire gutted her guest cottage and damaged the garage. “I’m very, very lucky it wasn’t worse,” she said.

The city promised to fast-track permitting procedures to help residents rebuild. “We’re moving along as fast as possible,” Gail Sumpter, division manager for permit services, said. “Not all the property owners have submitted plans, but we are working with them to get them what they need.”

Lewis, who has been struggling with health issues after being hospitalized for smoke inhalation, was pleased with the permit offices’ efficiency.

“My contractor submitted plans only a month ago and they’ve already been approved by seven committees,” she said. “We’re just waiting for the fire safety people to sign off and we’re ready to go. So I don’t think we can complain.”

Lewis had been unable to return to her house until mid-February, when water and power lines were restored.

Another concern was replanting vegetation at Bluffs Park before possible winter rains arrived, with the accompanying threat of mudslides. Bob Stallings, the Parks and Recreation director for the city, said, “We started replanting about two months ago in a plan developed with our city biologist and the California Native Plant Society.”

Stallings explained that planting native vegetation, which doesn’t require a great deal of irrigation after it has rooted, made sense. “Besides, the fire melted all our sprinkler heads,” he said.

Dave Crawford, the city’s biologist, said he welcomes the opportunity to restore native plants to the area. “We are trying to set a good example,” he said. “Hopefully, residents will do the same.”

He predicted that some of the area’s native grasses and low shrubs will “recover on their own” and emphasized the advantages of shrubbery that doesn’t require a great deal of irrigation. “It’s good to go with what thrives here naturally.”

The local fire stations were recognized for their quick and efficient response at the time and credited with limiting the damage. “But this fire season is really dry and dangerous,” Fire Chief David Enriquez said. “Residents need to be particularly vigilant.”

Detective Gonzales said signage along the highway, reminding drivers of the extreme hazard of a tossed cigarette, would be a welcome idea, but also acknowledged that “signage is one thing and whether a smoker pays attention is another.”

He recently drove past the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway below Pepperdine University. “You would be amazed at the tonnage of cigarette butts you see lining the highway,” he said.

Fire safety and emergency plans

€ Remove flammable vegetation from within 30 feet of any structure and increase to 50 feet in high hazard areas.

€ Landscape with drought-resistant plants and maintain them.

€ Space shrubs a minimum of 15 feet apart and allow trees a minimum of 30 feet between canopies at maturity.

€ Remove stacks of combustible materials and stack wood at least 30 feet from structures.

€ Locate fixed butane/propane tanks at least 10 feet from any structure and maintain 10 feet of clearance.

€ Clear flammable vegetation at least 10 feet from roads and driveways.

€ Identify at least two exit routes from your neighborhood.

€ Review an evacuation plan with your family and neighbors.

€ Make sure street names and numbers are visible at intersections and post your address at the front of your house or your vehicle entrance to the property.

More information can be obtained online at www.fire.lacounty.gov/FirePrevention/PDFs/BrushClearance.pdf