Could a Massive Sprinkler System Stop Future Fires?

Don Schmitz displays an image of fire coming over a ridge line during his remarks at HRL last week.

For the last few years, we’ve been told by fire officials that brush fire season, which used to be in the autumn months, is now year-round and that we’re living in a “new normal” of wildfires. The last two years has been especially devastating in California, with some of the most destructive fires ever recorded, including Los Angeles County’s worst fire in modern history—the Woolsey Fire. It may take some imaginative new ideas to help stop the spread of blazes that will no doubt be unleashed upon us again. Local developer consultant Don Schmitz said he has a solution: He gave a slick presentation on his idea Wednesday night at Hughes Research Laboratory (HRL) with about 50 in attendance, including Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Karen Farrer and Council Members Skylar Peak and Mikke Pierson. 

Schmitz is floating the idea of what is essentially a giant sprinkler system to be installed on ridgelines throughout Malibu and Los Angeles County and he said it can be done for only $122 million—a fraction of what is costs to fight wildfires and the billions of dollars they cause in damage to homes and properties. As founder and president of the Coalition for Fire Safe Communities, which Schmitz described as a nonprofit organization, he laid out details in a power point presentation on what he called “a solution to this ongoing tragedy that we experience up and down California.” 

Malibu Chamber of Commerce President Lenise Sorén introduced Schmitz and called him a mentor, saying, “I’m a big believer of solution-oriented direction when you have a problem. I think everybody can agree that things could have been better.”

Schmitz’ idea is to create permanent wet defensible firebreaks using industrial-grade agricultural rain bird sprinklers fueled by water tanks. Placing the system on ridgeline firebreaks also allows water to flow downhill. He suggested placing sprinklers that shoot water out 50 yards every 75 yards. 

“This is just a concept,” Schmitz said. “It would all need to be engineered, but it’s not that complicated.” Schmitz described his idea, known as First Fire Defense System, as easier, cheaper and more efficient than using water-dropping aircraft in attacking a blaze. “All we need is one hour, one man or woman, and one valve. Open the valve and we’re distributing upwards to 180,000 gallons on a one-mile stretch of defensible fire break.” When someone questioned Schmitz on the effectiveness of fire breaks, he defended his wet fire break idea retorting, “Fire breaks don’t work all of the time, but they do most of the time.” 

Once installed, the system would remain permanent, he said, unlike fire departments that are often called out of the area in emergencies leaving their home bases vulnerable. 

“The system would aid and complement existing firefighting capacities, enhancing the possibility of successful accomplishment,” Schmitz said. “It gives us a fighting chance.”

Familiar with environmental boards and local and state agencies, Schmitz said he’s mapped out the entire Santa Monica Mountains with a series of proposed lines and tanks—a whopping 84 miles stretching from Topanga Canyon to the Ventura County line. A similar system is apparently in place at Calamigos Ranch and is said to have helped save the ranch during the Woolsey Fire and, as an audience member pointed out, “saved hundreds of jobs.”

The idea, first raised in 2007 after fire destroyed 52 Malibu homes, was rebuffed by politicians, according to Schmitz. Regulatory issues among the different agencies that facilitate the Santa Monica Mountains could be problematic. On Wednesday night, some skepticism surfaced when attendees asked about beta tests. Skeptic Ryan Ulyate, copresident of the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safety Council, questioned Schmitz: “He’s a developer, you know. I want to see the proof. I strongly think any ideas for testing would be beneficial.”

Schmitz rebuked Ulyate’s comments by stressing the wet defensible fire breaks are to enhance the fire department when it faces 200-foot-tall walls of flames during firestorms.

“Now is the time if we have the political will to make the change,” he said. Schmitz urged those in attendance to contact their local representatives from city council to Congress to press for his First Fire Defense System. Peak told the crowd, “You have to put pressure on the people who control the money. It’s important we work together. As our community heals, I think it’s important to explore things that can make our community safer.”

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