Malibu is a fire “catcher.” It generally doesn’t generate blazes—it catches them from elsewhere, typically north of the Ventura (101) Freeway.
That’s according to fire science expert David Kerr who spoke Thursday and Saturday at workshops the city held to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). As Malibu Fire Safety Liaison Jerry Vandermeulen explained, “a CWPP provides a roadmap to improve our resiliency and prepare for fire.” The report will also help the city receive future grant money for fire safety because all the experts at the workshops agreed Malibu should brace for more fire catastrophes.
Fire behavior analyst and former fire chief Kerr, who led the workshops, explained the obvious—that Malibu is a fire-prone environment but that a plan must be “realistic and achievable.
“Working in an environmentally sensitive habitat along with limited fiscal resources will be difficult,” Kerr said. “A lot of the responsibility is going to fall back on citizens. The idea we’re going to build a giant fuel break or giant fuels mitigation in the Santa Monica Mountains is not going to fly.”
Hardening structures is a key way to protect property, according to the experts.
“You need to be proactive,” Kerr said. And he was flabbergasted by what he saw in Malibu during a recent visit. He saw wood decks attached to homes cantilevered over fuels. “This gave me concern,” he said. He saw wood shake shingle roofs and ornamental vegetation like pampas grass he termed “concerning” for fire safety.
“It’s not a great choice although it may be attractive,” he said. Italian cypress was likened to a Roman candle.
Resident Scott Dittrich questioned why the fire department isn’t more aggressive in fining landowners who don’t clear their brush.
“It’s frustrating,” Dittrich said. “This is what we face.”
Kerr brought up the idea that communities often don’t respond well to regulations, but may act in a herd mentality if their neighbors are on board with fire safety strategies.
Access and egress to properties will likely be addressed in the plan.
“When structures are unseen from the primary road, it’s a challenge,” the expert explained. Kerr said firefighters need to feel “safer about going onto these properties. When fire crews come in from other areas in an emergency they may not know how to get their engines into areas without easier accessibility. Locked gates are an issue, too.”
Fire science professor and former firefighter Crystal Kolden said climate change cannot be denied and is exacerbating wildfire frequency.
“The temperature in Malibu is going to increase,” Kolden said. “The mean maximum temperature in Malibu has been in the high 70s during summer. It’s going to increase six or seven degrees by the end of the 21st century and, of course, that’s not fire season. It will impact fuel dryness.”
Kolden explained Malibu has the highest fire frequency for all of Southern California.
“This place is the most flammable in the nation,” she said. And Kolden added the number of high fire danger days is increasing yearly. “Every five years, you’re going to have an additional three days during the fall when you have those extreme conditions that result in large fires.” It all depends on if there are ignitions.
Nearly all fires in Malibu are wind driven by Santa Anas. Scientists fire modeling shows an increase in the window—usually in the fall—where high temperatures, drought and winds conspire to create high fire danger. Unfortunately, the marine layer that can buffer fire risk by boosting moisture in vegetation and cooling temperatures is “getting weaker,” according to Kolden.
“We’re seeing a decrease in the thickness and the cover of the marine layer over the last 40 years,” Kolden said. “That’s bad for coastal cities that rely on it to keep their fire danger down.”
Some areas of Malibu have burned 11 times since 1925.
“We have to accept the fact that fire is going to revisit Malibu again—probably not too far in the near future,” the professor said.
Community activist Jane Kagon repeated aloud a phrase used by Kolden when encouraging neighbors to get involved: “Wildfire science is easy. Social science is hard.”
The community is encouraged to add input.
Visit the wildfire plan website: MalibuCity.org/FireSafety
A community survey: www.malibucity.org/WIldfirePlanSurvey
or email comments to FireSafety@MalibuCity.org