Should mountain greenery get the ax?

For Stan Pope, the lush landscaping in his neighborhood is more of a threat than a blessing. Pine, eucalyptus and pepper trees shade the homes and streets in Malibu Park where Pope and his late wife lived since 1952.

A wildfire in 1956 tore across Zuma Ridge destroying a neighbor’s house and killing another neighbor who was fleeing the blaze. Pope has a healthy respect for wildfires.

“I got a call about three in the morning, the fire was glowing over the ridge,” he said. “We called our neighbor. His wife drove out with the baby one way. Frank took the other. He was apparently blinded by the smoke and ran off the road. The car blew up, and he died.”

Pope and his wife and two children stayed, watched firefighters try to save another neighbor’s house and fail. They used a garden hose to soak the shingled roof of their house, and it was saved.

The hillsides were comparatively bare in the ’50s. “There was nothing but wild oats growing near Cuthbert Road then, only four houses,” Pope said. “There are many more people living here now.”

The people planted trees, lots of them, trees that now tower over the houses, lean into the roadways and cast dry leaves into a thick mat covering the earth.

Most of the pine trees grew from seedlings given to residents by the fire department, Pope said, pointing to two pines planted at least 50 feet from his house and creatively trimmed to remove all the dead needles and low-growing branches. “Trouble is people planted them right next to the houses and too close to the road,” he said. “If the roadside trees catch fire, it will be impossible to drive out.”

Looking at the thick, dry chaparral covering Zuma Ridge above four new mansions, Pope shakes his head. “That wide brown stretch was a fire break they put in after the ’56 fire, but the environmentalists wanted to let it grow back, to be natural. Now there’s dry grass and brush growing all over it.”

The Park Service has a policy about living “lightly on the land” and is generally opposed to bulldozers clearing firebreaks.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department is working with the National Park Service on a prescribed burn in Zuma Canyon that will involve about 1,400 acres of park land. About one third of the area has been burned so far, said Chief Steve Alexander. “This is a fully operational prescribed burn. We have a schedule that goes through the middle of next year.” But a strict set of guidelines on weather and air quality determines when burning is permitted. “Every day we decide whether we can burn.”

The department is also involved in a brush-crushing project, Alexander said. “It’s a tractor with a roller, so you can dry it out and burn it in the winter when live brush wouldn’t burn, creating a safer condition and allowing us to do more work. It’s going to be a great thing.”

As for clearing brush on private property, the fire department has been inspecting and notifying homeowners of work that needs to be done. “We follow up on every single complaint,” said Capt. Don Schwaiger at Station 71. “We do have trouble getting people to cut trees during the summer because they say it’s harmful to the trees, so we are saving some types of trees until later.”

The city has not received any complaints this year about neighbors not taking care of their property, said Emergency Services Coordinator Hap Holmwood.

Pope worries that when another wildfire comes, residents won’t be alerted soon enough to get out. “When we moved here, there was an air raid siren on Busch. They took it away, but something like that would work.”

Holmwood said the city plans to set up new sirens. “The old ones were power hungry and have a lot of moving parts. Our goal is establishment of about 16 or 18 neighborhood networks coupled with the AM radio station and HAM operators for general alert. We need a program that is entirely ‘hardline’ free, because the first thing to go is power. The hub emergency operations center in City Hall has a large generator.”

Cable Channel 15 will air the city’s new videotape on brush clearance and fire preparedness at 5 p.m. every day for the next few weeks.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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