Malibu’s first fire safety liaison returns

(From left) Jerry Vandermeulen, Gabriel Etcheverry, and Bradley Yocum serve as the fire liaisons for the residents of Malibu, ready to share their fire safety knowledge with the public. Contributed Photo

Jerry Vandermeulen and his two colleagues bring a wealth of fire safety knowledge to the community 

A well-loved Malibu employee has returned from retirement to serve the community once again. Jerry Vandermeulen, Malibu’s first-ever fire liaison, is back in a part-time capacity along with his two colleagues and is prepared to share a wealth of fire safety knowledge with the public.

After retiring from the Ventura County Fire Department in 2019, Vandermeulen served in Malibu when the community desperately needed his services after the devasting Woolsey Fire. 

“I was very fortunate to be the first one,” the fire liaison commented on the city position newly established after Woolsey decimated more than 10 percent of Malibu dwellings. After Vandermeulen defined and developed the position “with a lot of help, of course” he stepped away after two years.

Vandermeulen described how busy he was initially in 2019 with residents reaching out for help post-Woolsey. In his second night on the job, he attended a homeowners association meeting in Big Rock, where his services helping people become better fire-prepared was sorely needed.

“A big break came,” he said, when he attended a two-day class given by the National Fire Prevention Association called “Assessing Structures for Ignition Potential from Wildfire.” 

“It really opened my eyes to the damage and destruction caused by embers. It’s kind of really a new phenomenon,” Vandermeulen said. “When I worked in Ventura County, we really hung our hats on defensible space. If you have a house next to wildland you create defensible space. We had tremendous success with that. We never really looked at the embers because that was never really an issue. Starting in 2017, a big fire in Santa Rosa destroyed a complete neighborhood and then the Thomas Fire in Ventura saw houses midtown far away from the brush starting on fire from embers. That was a real eye-opener for me.” 

That experience springboarded the Malibu Home Ignition Zone Assessment Program. Vandermeulen personally conducted nearly 400 assessments locally. The voluntary program lets residents have an evaluation of their home’s fire safety with one of three Malibu Fire Liaisons at no cost. 

“We come out, meet with the homeowner, walk the property, discuss the issues, and leave a list of recommendations to make their house safer and harden against embers,” he said.

Common problems Vandermeulen sees are mulch next to the house, trimmings and bushes, removing and improving wood structures, and hardening vents. 

“Over time vents can get broken and they’re wide open,” he said. 

The returning employee described a lot of interest in fire safety post-Woolsey and Vandermeulen wants to make sure that interest remains high on residents’ radar. 

“Everybody in the city whether you’re back up against open wildlands or not, everybody should be paying attention to ember hardening,” he said. “Some of it is as simple as adding a finer mesh over vent openings, trimming bushes or even removing some with succulents and gravel.”

Vandermeulen noted a new law, AB 3074, the zero-ignition zone rule. The rule states that five-feet around any home may not contain any combustibles. 

“At some point down the road it will be enforceable by LACO Fire,” he said. 

An educational approach will be taken until 2025 when full enforcement is expected.

“We get our big fires when it’s windy,” Vandermeulen continued. “That’s the game changer. We’re talking gusts of 60 mph or more.” 

He explained the embers can be blown more than a mile away. 

“If embers land by your house and find receptive fuel then that’s something that can catch fire,” Vandermeulen warned. “It could be patio furniture next to your house. If a cushion is made of synthetic material it can get so hot it can break a window then get into your house. That’s why it’s important.”

Vandermeulen praised his co-workers who bring different skill sets to the table, such as Brad Yocum, a 29-year LACO Fire Department veteran with years of forestry experience. 

“He knows his chaparral and horticulture inside and out. He’s very knowledgeable,” Vandermeulen said. “Gabriel Etcheverry, is a 34-year LACOFD veteran. He does training for FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security in regard to teaching counter-terrorism support for first responders and military and hazardous materials training. It’s a dynamic and diverse skill set that we have assembled.” 

The three fire liaisons provide education and outreach to the public at HOA meetings or wherever requested for presentations. 

Vandermeulen concluded he hopes residents won’t “let their guard down” regarding fire safety. 

“We want to keep that awareness up at the top where it needs to be and get people to be prepared,” he said.