New assistant fire chief has eye on Malibu

Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Graham. Photo by Dana Fineman / TMT

New Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Graham is jumping in with two feet in meeting local area residents and helping them to prepare for the fire season, which began May 1. Graham attended a forum late last month where Malibu residents peppered Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman with questions about the Fire Department’s handling of the fires last year, and he even showed up at a fire appreciation barbecue last week given by local resident James Groth.

Graham has replaced retired Chief Reginald Lee as the head of department division seven, which includes fire-prone regions of the county such as Malibu, Hidden Hills, Agoura, Calabasas, Topanga, unincorporated areas of the Santa Monica Mountains, and tiny pockets of West Hollywood and Universal City.

The Malibu Times spoke to Graham about his service and experiences with the department, and the importance of being prepared for fire season in Malibu.

Graham, a 30-year veteran of the county Fire Department, knows something about being alert on a round-the-clock basis. He grew up in South Central L.A.

“That will sharpen your survival skills,” he said dryly.

Graham comes from a tradition of civil service; his father spent 30 years in the postal service, and his brother is retired from the Department of Water and Power.

He has an associate degree in electrical engineering from L.A. Southwest College and a bachelor’s in science from Cal State Long Beach.

“I was going to become an electrical engineer but shifted gears along the way,” Graham said. “I was taking a math class and my professor started talking about working all your life in an office environment. Well, I’m an outdoors kind of guy so I started looking elsewhere.”

After he graduated from the Fire Department Academy, his first assignment was in La Canada-Flintridge and Altadena.

“My first major wild land fire was on Mt. Wilson in the late ’70s,” Graham said. “There was a lot going on up there. It was hot. We were sleeping in paper-like sleeping bags and there was no food. Since then, we’re much more organized about helping crews.”

Graham said equipment design has markedly improved over the years, but that the greatest advancements have been in Standard Operating Procedures.

“Our SOP’s, the rules we’re guided by, are much better and more stringent,” Graham said. “And we are more pro-active about educating the public and telling them what they can do for their best chance at survival in a fire.”

He emphasized that one of his first responsibilities is in working with local communities to prepare for months-long fire seasons and doing everything possible to minimize the prospect for disasters, such as the Malibu fires of last October and November.

“Bottom line is, people have got to clear brush around their homes in wildfire-prone areas,” Graham said. “Teaching residents to help themselves will make things easier for us.”

Graham will be working in this outreach effort with Maria Grycan, the community services representative for the LAFD.

“Most people want to help,” Grycan said of fire preparation efforts. “Out of 3,800 parcels that were inspected locally for brush last year, only 20 of those did not comply with clearance notices.”

Graham added, “Brush clearance is just one step homeowners can take. Fire resistant landscaping and other aspects, like changing out a wooden deck for something non-combustible, are something you can look at.”

Even with the moister winter of the past months, the Fire Department is gearing up for a vigilant summer.

“We have tall grass and burned brush from previous fires growing back,” Graham said. “I want all Malibu residents to understand the type of terrain that surrounds them and what a wild land fire can do. We have to start with education of the public on brush clearance compliance around their homes.”

Graham oversees two full battalions of staff, with nearly 300 fire fighters and six battalion chiefs.

“It’s a challenge to take care of such a large area,” he said. “There’s a lot of coordination and a lot of meetings in each city.”

Meanwhile, Graham has an eye on Malibu. “I’ve worked in wildfire-prone areas, so I knew what I was getting into here,” the assistant fire chief said. “As soon as I knew Chief Lee was retiring, I put in for this position because I welcome the challenge. I’m ready to go.”