Anxiety levels can run high for Malibu residents on hot, dry, windy days due to the threat of disastrous wildfires. Most residents have witnessed, been affected by or even lost a home to the area’s frequent conflagrations.
To help prevent future tragedies, the folks who serve on Arson Watch are quietly providing eyes, ears and expertise to nip disasters in the bud. Even Malibu’s own mayor devotes time as an Arson Watch volunteer.
“Like a number of people, I’ve been on Arson Watch since the Woolsey Fire,” Mayor Mikke Pierson said. “I always meant to sign up,” clarifying the 2018 event prompted him to take immediate action.
The 100 or so volunteers of what’s officially called Friends of the Arson Watch patrol 185 square miles of terrain covering the Santa Monica Mountains that are susceptible to wind driven blazes. Patrol ranks grow on red flag alert days—when weather is most favorable for small sparks to become uncontrollable wildfires—and cover overnight hours. Arson Watch makes a visual presence to those who might do harm even inadvertently during tinder dry conditions.
Volunteers on foot, bicycles or in cars are trained how to interact with the public—or not—according to Pierson. Arson Watch falls under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“We’re part of their eyes and ears,” the mayor said. “Mainly, we’re out there trying to educate the public if they’re acting dangerously.” That includes smokers, fireworks users and more.
Arson Watch also volunteers when fires outside the Santa Monica Mountains are burning to keep watch for embers encroaching the area from Pacific Coast Highway to the Ventura (101) Freeway and from Topanga Canyon to the Ventura County line.
Todd Prince is the Arson Watch Malibu/Agoura/Calabasas team leader. The 11-year volunteer explained that, along with his Topanga counterparts, “Our key task is, on high fire danger days, to fan out and patrol the area. All members are volunteer civilians.” A typical situation is encountering careless smokers.
“We’re not trying to modify a person’s habits,” Prince explained. “Our job is to keep the canyons safe … Volunteers politely suggest smoking be done in their vehicles. We offer education on how dangerous it is, especially in high wind, to do what they’re doing. It’s unlikely you’re going to start a fire if you smoke inside your car. It’s when you throw it out or when that flick of an ash goes—and it always happens afterwards. When you give that alternative to people, it normally is successful.”
Arson Watch was started in 1982 by the most unlikely figure—the late actor Buddy Ebsen. The beloved actor was a longtime resident of Liberty Canyon. After a Topanga arson fire, Ebsen was moved to create the nonprofit organization with the community.
Because Arson Watch operates through the LASD, each volunteer undergoes a thorough background check and vetting. The group is always looking for volunteers.
“Recently, a woman joined the team and later felt she wasn’t up to committing the few hours a month required,” Prince described. “On her very first patrol, she saw an arcing power line ignite a blaze. She called 9-1-1 immediately and the department snuffed it out. She called me back and said, ‘I’m in for life.’ We give our time how we can. It’s a value you provide to the community to be extra eyes to keep us safe.”
Pierson is committed too.
“People know we’re out there and they really appreciate it,” the mayor said.
To volunteer or donate, go to arsonwatch.com.