CERT - Woolsey Fire

CERT members and other volunteers organize donations at Zuma Beach immediately following the Woolsey Fire.

A major reason homes catch fire during wildfires is due to flying embers. To help residents defend their homes against embers, the city now offers a no-cost “Home Ignition Zone Assessment Program,” identifying specific areas where wildfire embers can find receptive fuels in and around the home.

Volunteers from the Malibu Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Arson Watch completed a 16 hour “Assessing Structure Ignition Potential from Wildfire” class through the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in identifying where embers can find receptive fuels around a home.

“Fifty percent or greater of homes that burn during wildfires burn not because of direct exposure to the fire itself but from embers,” the city’s fire safety liaison, Jerry Vandermeulen, said in a recent interview with The Malibu Times. And those embers can fly far. “Embers can be exposed one to three miles in advance of the fire and also affect homes that wouldn’t normally be susceptible to burning, such as homes in Point Dume.”

The home assessment program gives Malibu homeowners the opportunity to receive feedback on what they can do better to protect their home on the outside.

“We look at the house—and some of the recommended things through this program are no vegetation [should be] in the first five feet of the house,” Vandermeulen said. “Ornamental vegetation can burn, there are some that are more susceptible to burning than others, but it can burn under the right conditions.”

Vandermeulen said it was important to let residents know to keep their yard and property clean and maintained to prevent any major accidents.

Contrary to some assumptions, trees can actually be a good thing when it comes to fire protection.

“Trees are OK, shrubs are OK, but they also need to be maintained; trees can actually provide a screen for embers, but they need to be trimmed up and off the ground six to eight feet,” Vandermeulen said. “It’s potentially fuel for a fire. So, we would recommend breaking up shrubs and bushes and have space in between them.”

There are simple and often inexpensive ways to make a home fire resistant and safer from wildfires. This includes modifying landscaping around homes, replacing vents and sealing eaves, and moving flammable materials away from structures.

“You can replace your current vents with ember-retardant [vents] that have baffles, as well as dual paint glass that will resist the fire much longer,” Vandermeulen said.

Vandermeulen also recommended removing any logs and picking up dead grass that can be a receptive fuel for embers.

According to arsonwatch.com, a website for Malibu’s Arson Watch program, “thirty percent of brush fires are caused by improper use of brush cleaning equipment.” 

Vandermeulen is currently working on the home assessments on his own, along with a small group of people who attended the NFPA classes and know how to inspect a home.

“In addition, we have excellent support from the North Topanga Fire Safe Council, who have been doing this for a couple of years and have been a help to guide us,” Vandermeulen said.

Vandermeulen hopes to be able to receive help from Malibu CERT, who have taken the class.

“I’m hoping to acquire enough people to keep everyone busy,” Vandermeulen said. “When we’re doing the assessment, we’re looking at things we can change or eliminate to get of those fuel embers that can cause damage and cause a fire.”

To schedule an appointment, contact Jerry Vandermeulen at 310.456.2489, ext. 387 or jvandermeulen@malibucity.org. For additional wildfire preparation, please visit the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Ready, Set, Go program website.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct contact information for the City of Malibu's fire safety liaison. 

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