Disaster Guide: Firescaping Workshop Draws Malibu Crowd

Malibu City Council Member Mikke Pierson addresses the large crowd gathered for the Malibu Firescaping Workshop at Malibu City Hall.

Slapped in the face with the stark reality of losing close to 700 homes in Malibu last November, area residents eager to avoid another fire catastrophe crowded into City Hall last week for a fire landscaping workshop. 

City Council Member Mikke Pierson, who stayed behind to defend his home and others’, told those gathered, “I believe every single home that burned down in my neighborhood burned down because of embers. I don’t think a single home burned down from flames.” He estimated 40 percent of homes in the Woolsey Fire “burned down because of the landscaping.”

The Malibu Firescaping Workshop to demonstrate how fire resilient landscaping can help a home’s safety was staged by West Basin Municipal Water District in partnership with the City of Malibu. The featured speaker, Douglas Kent, is an expert in fire science. Kent provided invaluable information on keeping landscaping as safe as possible, considering Malibu is prone to wildfires. The packed auditorium gasped when Kent stated the statistic that California has an unbelievable 8,000 brush fires a year and that Malibu typically gets struck twice a decade with a significant event.

One of the first places to start in keeping a home safe is access for firefighters to get there. Some windy hillside roads can become dangerous if cars are parked blocking the way and limit access. Kent stated emergency personnel can be reluctant to drive up a narrow street or driveway that is canopied by overgrown trees “for fear they couldn’t get back out.” Kent said if just one car is parked turning a street into a one-way road and you can’t evacuate or emergency personnel can’t get in “you can pretty much kiss your house off.” 

Kent emphasized many times during the presentation to have your address clearly visible from the street and, as we’ve read many times before, to make a defensible space around your home.  Dead, dying and diseased vegetation must be removed from 10 feet around your structure. “It’s not the plant. It’s the condition of the plant,” Kent pointed out. Although, as one Topanga resident noted with frustration, that can be problematic because under California law, oak trees may not be removed. 

Kent reminded residents to clean their roofs and gutters. Fill in gaps and seams that can trap embers. Paint or sand any peeling paint. Screen all openings. Don’t store wood, toys, garden furniture or any junk within a five-foot perimeter of the home. Leave a clear, four-foot pass around the home so firefighters have access without tripping over hazards underfoot. 

The first five feet from the home should also not have flammable plants such as buckwheat, cypress, eucalyptus, juniper and any other plant with a brittle nature and fragrance because fragrant plants contain oils that are flammable. Less flammable plants are generally broadleaf plants that have moist and easily bent thick leaves, are not fragrant, have silver or gray leaves and leaves without hair. There should be no woody or dry organic mulches near homes—river rock is preferred. Kent warned against the use of fabrics in the first five feet such as awnings, cushions and umbrellas. Another no-no is erecting a shade device—or “freeway for fire”—near a home that, once ablaze, can connect to a structure.

The garden zone of defensible space extends 30 feet from your home. This zone needs to be able to withstand flying embers or firebrands and intense heat. Less flammable plants that are fire retardant, such as Agapanthus, Flax, Cercis, Crape Myrtle, Fescue, Gazania, Grape, Liquidambar, Philodendron, Photinia and succulents are preferred. Fire resistant plants include Artemisia, Ceanothus, Cistus, Coast live oak, Cotoneaster, Lemonade berry, Mallow, native Verbena, Toyon, Yarrow and Yucca. The distinction between fire retardant and fire resistant is that fire resistant is material that is inherently resistant to catching fire and does not melt or drip when exposed directly to extreme heat. Fire retardant is defined as a material that has been chemically treated to self-extinguish. Malibu’s ordinance calls for only native plants to be used in landscapes 50 feet or more from a structure, whereas non-native and noninvasive plants can be used within the first 50 feet.

As for the construction of new homes that many are undertaking in Malibu, Kent advised using a nonflammable roof and siding materials and small eaves plus this stunner—have small, double paned windows—typically not preferred by designers and architects trying to make the most of stunning ocean views Malibu can offer. 

“The smaller the window, the less radiant heat there is to cause damage. Use double- and thermal-paned windows,” the expert advised.

Pierson, who’s been through a number of fires during his many years in Malibu, took the information to heart, saying, “This is personal for me.”