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The blaze continues uphill toward Malibu Knolls neighborhood in January 2018.

From the Holy Fire in Riverside and Orange counties to the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, 2018 is shaping up to be the worst fire season in California history. And that so-called “fire season” has now expanded from the historical Santa Ana wind season in the autumn months to summer months, when vegetation once healthy and green turns brown—which scientists have concluded is due to the Earth’s warming climates. A study in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters—just one of many scientific studies in recent years—blames climate change on increasing the ingredients for characteristic fire patterns.

“For whatever reason, fires are burning much more intensely, much more quickly than they were before,” said Mark A. Hartwig, president of the California Fire Chiefs Association. “California is seeing earlier, longer and more destructive wildfire seasons because of drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into the forests.”

Malibu, too, with its combination of rugged topography and abundant brush parched by years of drought and dry weather conditions, sets the right ingredients for wildfires, and we have had our share. Last year’s Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties burned for weeks, taking 440 square miles and more than 1,000 structures. The Thomas Fire held the title of largest fire in California history for only six months before it was dwarfed by the still-blazing Mendocino Complex Fire.

This fire season, The Malibu Times will be going in-depth into topics readers in Malibu need to know about, including issues having to do with neighborhood safety, insurance information, the changing face of fire danger and this week’s topic: prevention.

Brush clearance

Fire officials say Malibu homeowners must brace for the worst and be diligent to prevent destruction. The single most important measure is brush clearance.

Creating a defensible space is the first step in creating a buffer zone for fires. California Fire officials say to leave 100 feet of defensible space around a home. The first 30 feet around a home needs to be cleared of dead or dying leaves and trees, branches and brush. The next 70 feet should be swept of all built-up needles, twigs and branches. It is advised to create a separation between trees and shrubs that could catch fire. It is on these low levels that fire authorities say most brush fires start and then climb to higher levels and treetops. Once a fire reaches higher levels, it becomes extremely difficult to fight. During a wind-whipped blaze, embers can travel for miles. 

Fifty-year Malibu resident Anthony Shafer, who served 40 years as a firefighter and saved his own building and others in the ‘93 Old Topanga Fire, said following fire department instructions is imperative.

“The most important thing is to comply with virtually all the requests the fire service or fuel management agencies are concerned with,” Shafer said. “The primary issue is to have as much defensible space between you and wherever the fire is. The more you have, the better off you are. The defensible space allows the fire service access. Officers who take their crews into dangerous environments and get them injured are subject to severe punishment.” Shafer said driveways and streets without fire truck turn around areas or outlets are “unsafe.”

And you’d better get your neighbors onboard with fire prevention as well, as Shafer pointed out, “It’s often the house next door that burns your house down.” 

Home defense

Fire experts from Cal Fire said hardening your home by using construction materials like concrete and steel that can help your home withstand flying embers is a good defense tactic, as well as finding weak spots in the construction and taking care to fix those troubled areas. Make sure all needles and leaves are removed from roofs and gutters. Tree limbs need to be trimmed at least six feet from the ground. Woodpiles should be kept away from homes and vegetation and items that could catch fire need to be removed from around and under decks. Creating a defensible space is the homeowner’s responsibility and if a property becomes over grown and dangerous, homeowners could be fined.

Landscaping

Landscaping with fire-resistant plants can also help to reduce the spread of fire to your home and, according to Cal Fire, may help to conserve water as well. Although it may not be the most water efficient, it is important to keep a home’s landscaping well hydrated.

While doing yard work, mind weed whacker safety. In May of last year, Battalion Chief Anthony Williams told Malibu City Council that seven vegetation fires had been sparked in the span of two weeks due to what he called “weed whips,” also known as weed whackers.

Cal Fire suggests doing all yard maintenance requiring a gas or electrical motor before 10 a.m.—never in the heat of day or when the wind is blowing. Never use mowers in dry vegetation. Remove rocks that when hit can spark a blaze and keep your equipment in working order.

Another step in fire prevention touted by Southern California Edison—but derided by Malibu residents—is the utility’s plan to shut off power during high fire risk conditions. As detailed in The Malibu Times Aug. 9, SCE claims without electricity, fires cannot spark when blowing palm fronds and branches interfere with live wires and transformers.

“We’re going to be in deep trouble. These little communities like ours that are dependent on power in order to supply the water system—we’re in trouble,” Shafer said, adding that when fire companies “show up and there’s no water—chances are they’ll leave.” 

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