Malibu Staring Down the Barrel of Another High-Risk Fire Season

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The Flores Fire on Monday, July 19

It’s going to be another risky fire season and residents need to be prepared.

That was the conclusion of the annual wildland fall outlook presented to Malibu last week by the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACo Fire). The online presentation with a dire warning for Malibu homeowners capped off the City of Malibu’s efforts to inform and educate residents as part of September’s National Preparedness Month.

LACo Fire Captain Drew Smith, a fire behavior analyst, opened his virtual presentation with facts. According to his department’s research and fire modeling predictions, from now through December 2021 temperatures will be above normal.

“It could be three degrees, five degrees or even 15 degrees higher than normal,” Smith stated. Not only will it be hotter; rainfall will be below normal and there will be a normal amount of Santa Ana wind events through the end of the year. These three factors significantly contribute to the preponderance of wildland fires in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.

LA County is now in what’s being termed an extreme drought due to a 10-inch deficit of rain. The rain we received this week left barely a dent in the drought conditions. That and heat contribute to drying out what Smith called “Mother Nature’s sponge”—all the dead vegetation that accumulates throughout the Santa Monica Mountains that collects and releases moisture. “Our live fuel moisture is at a critical level at 60 percent,” Smith said.

The fire chief then answered questions. The first concerned a problem voiced often at public city hearings—when does the fire department step in to take over brush clearance when home owners fail to do so?

“There’s a process involved with that,” Smith answered. “For the most part, we have significantly good compliance. There are those challenged with meeting the fire code requirements. We go out and inspect and if it’s not in compliance we give them 14 days to get it completed. Then we go out again and be good neighbors and say, ‘You really need to get this done.’”

 After a deadline extension, the case gets turned over to a fire department brush clearance unit and then eventually to the Los Angeles County Agriculture Department. If the agriculture department eventually sends a crew to do the work, property owners are then billed for the scope of the work done.  

“The fire department does the inspection. The non-compliance falls in with county AG and management,” Smith reiterated. “It would be very nice if we had control over that—if we knew we had non-compliance [and] we could use our hand crews—but that’s not the case.”

When another participant complained about improper brush clearance, Smith clarified that the city and fire department work together.

“If you have a complaint, we go and look,” the captain said. “We get a significant amount of phone calls to go do inspections and they’re actually well within compliance.” The chief, however, still advised calling the city and speaking with the fire safety liaisons about properties that appear non-compliant. And Smith confirmed there is a 50-year electronic log of records covering non-compliant properties—and the “over-achievers” in non compliance—those who can’t seem to get their acts together—are being tracked.

Speaking about the proliferation of community fire brigades, Smith voiced support.

“I feel it’s highly beneficial,” he said. “There’s a significant amount of talent working together.”

Smith also addressed fires sparked by homeless encampments, explaining his department works in unison with the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s outreach program.

“We have maps where we know the potential is there,” he said. “It is very challenging for the fire and sheriff’s department. It takes human intervention.”

Human mistakes can also hinder firefighters, the chief explained, including people parking in front of hydrants. But there are things people can do to make it easier for firefighters, too. He urged homeowners with pools to identify if you have one with a fire pump.

“In a rapidly expanding fire fight, we’re going to go with a known,” Smith said. “If it’s unknown, we’re not going to take our time to try to figure it out.”

Malibu Fire Safety Liaison Chris Brossard urged all homeowners in the 90265 area code, even those outside city limits, to sign up for a free home hardening and landscape assessment. Go to malibucity.org/firesafety.

Malibu Safety Commissioner Chris Frost gave a shout out to Arson Watch and Smith elaborated, “It’s a huge value for early warning and for determining the cause of a fire. I encourage people to be part of it.”

The entire presentation is available online now at bit.ly/SafetyBriefing2021.