Training Day in Malibu West

Malibu West Volunteer Fire Brigade founder Dermot Stoker (center) speaks to members of the fire brigade during a training session on Saturday, June 19. The brigade was founded by Stoker in 2012 and members were instrumental in saving most of the Malibu West neighborhood during the Woolsey Fire. Now, the group's operations are seen as a model for other neighborhoods interested in organizing volunteer fire brigades.

During a wildfire, roads and certain neighborhoods are difficult to access. For members of the Malibu West Volunteer Fire Brigade, communication is important, especially during an emergency. Also crucial: training.

On Saturday, the brigade met to practice protecting its neighborhood from the next fire, whenever it may be.

“We have 27 fire hydrants and 32 swimming pools throughout the neighborhood so it’s a good resource for water,” Dermot Stoker, chief and founder of the Malibu West Fire Brigade, told The Malibu Times later in the weekend. “I think the more we do this [training], the more our neighborhood realizes that we have a great group of people that are dedicated to this neighborhood and that makes them feel safer.”

The brigade (and other neighbors, some of whom have since joined up) was instrumental in helping fight the Woolsey Fire, making Malibu West one of the neighborhoods that fared best in the fire.

Stoker said being a part of the city’s parks and recreation commission for 12 years was a great avenue to reach out to the community and meet more people. Stoker has volunteered in various organizations in Malibu including the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station Arson Watch, parks and recreation commission and has been recognized as an ongoing supporter in the community by the City of Malibu.

“I joined The Arson Watch in 1995, which is an important part of our operation as far as the Malibu West Volunteer Fire Brigade,” Stoker said. 

Stoker and his wife of 39 years, Tracy, raised three children in Malibu and have lived in the same home for 32 years. Stoker said as soon as they found their home in 1987, it was important for him to get involved with his community. 

“This community—really, from the moment I entered it—just had such a great feel to it. I knew right away I was going to live here,” Stoker said. “I wanted to meet all my neighbors and, shortly after that, I got on the HOA [homeowners association] board of directors and implemented fun stuff in the neighborhood.” They also implemented the fire brigade, beginning with a phone call to retired Santa Monica Battalion Chief Walt Shirk in July 2012—Shirk now serves as the brigade’s training officer.

Stoker said being a part of Arson Watch gives the volunteers the ability to get through roadblocks during an emergency. Stoker said that was an issue during the Woolsey Fire, because they had so many road closures. 

“At first, I thought, ‘I’ll just send out texts and we can use cell phones to deploy the brigade and tell members where to go and what to do,’ and when the power went out, we were basically without communication, which was a big mistake on my part,” Stoker said. “I wish I had done when I started the fire brigade in 2012, to be a little more forward-thinking about our communication needs.”

Stoker said the organization started with 10 members but grew to 24. The HOA allocated $50,000 to the fire brigade for equipment such as turnout coats, goggles, gloves and proper breathing masks, so Stoker said they’re equipped to “make a stand.”

“Now we have a Motorola, very expensive radios that we bought for the brigade, as well as seven lockboxes throughout the neighborhood,” Stoker said. “They each hold 500 feet of hose, hydrant wrenches, shovels and all the things that we will need to fight any future events.”

Stoker said the training event on Saturday, June 19, was successful and said LA County Fire Chief Drew Smith was impressed on how things were set up as far as the brigade boxes there in the neighborhood.

“He [Smith] spent a couple hours with me and we drove through the neighborhood and I showed him our capabilities,” Stoker said. “This neighborhood is very defendable.”

Volunteers received instruction and hands-on practice unloading the hoses and the teamwork required to control the nozzle and manage the force generated by the water. 

The Malibu West Volunteer Fire Brigade Board of Directors includes Tim Biglow, Armando Petretti, David Hays, Aron Marderosian and Erik Rondell.

Stoker said Malibu Mayor Paul Grisanti, Council Member Mikke Pierson, LA County Fire Chief Drew Smith, LASD Arson Watch coordinator Todd Prince and Captain Chuck Becerra of Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station have been great supporters of their organization.

“It brings the community closer together because we now familiarize ourselves with who lives here and where,” Stoker added. “It’s been a very bonding movement.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated the lockboxes hold 50 feet of hose each. Each lockbox holds 500 feet of hose, for a total of 3,500 feet of fire hose stored in the neighborhood, as well as hydrant wrenches (not hydrants and wrenches). The story has been updated to reflect the corrections, as well as include the detail that Walt Shirk is the brigade’s training officer.