City of Malibu

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Last Saturday, the city kicked off the start of the 2019 fire season with updates from public safety and Southern California Edison (SCE) on current fire conditions, new policies and procedures the city is developing since last year’s destructive Woolsey Fire, and more about how SCE’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) is going to work.

The presence of Jerry Vandermeulen, the city’s new fire safety liaison, hired last May, is one of the changes the city made to be better prepared for future fires. Vandermeulen is heading up the new Home Ignition Zone Assessment Program to help residents make changes that will help protect their homes from flying embers—a major cause of houses burning down in high winds. 

He, as well as specially trained volunteer inspectors from the Malibu Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Arson Watch, will inspect individual homes upon request and then make specific recommendations on how to make it more ember-proof. He said some of the most common advice is to have “no mulch and no railroad ties.”

Vandermeulen is also available to meet with individuals, business owners, homeowners associations and multifamily residential property owners/managers to offer guidance. He is also prepared to explain how to monitor wildfire conditions, how to use the Pulsepoint emergency app and other tools to maintain good situational awareness well in advance of a wildfire, and how to prepare emergency and evacuation plans and supply kits.

He confirmed what most residents already know—that the next big fire worry for Malibu will be in the eastern half of the city, since there hasn’t been a major fire there since 1993. There has already been one small brushfire in eastern Malibu on Aug. 30, when 40 acres near Sweetwater Mesa burned. Officials at the meeting said that fire was sparked by a weed whacker. 

As for this season’s conditions, Vandermeulen said it’s expected to be warmer than usual throughout the fall season, with a total of 16 red flag warning days between September and December predicted. Current fuel moisture in the Santa Monica Mountains is 74 percent, which is 14 percent above the critical zone (that’s good), and five percent above average—meaning plants are not quite as dry as usual for this time of the year, and therefore are less likely to burn.

Residents were urged to be aware of the level of fire danger signs posted in front of Malibu fire stations, where a pointing arrow is moved to indicate red for extreme fire danger—where “if a fire starts, typical control efforts will not work” to yellow and green where a fire could be contained using “typical control methods.”

Susan Dueñas, Malibu’s public safety manager, listed a number of projects related to fire safety that the city is currently working on, including a plan for evacuation by zones, better traffic control during evacuations, expansion of emergency supply bins around the city, plans to set up 10 temporary information stations during emergencies in places where people tend to congregate, and training all members of city staff to be part of the city’s Emergency Operations Center if needed. 

Many of the plans require extensive interagency communication and cooperation, where the city is working with the fire department, sheriff’s department and other agencies. 

Trying to improve communications during emergencies is a big part of Dueñas’s focus, and she’s preparing for just about every eventuality. At the low-tech end of communications, when all else fails, she plans to use bullhorns from staff vehicles driving through neighborhoods, and tested that method in the Big Rock neighborhood last Tuesday. On a higher-tech level, the city hopes to be able to broadcast emergency information on KBUU radio (99.1) from a tie-in at City Hall. 

Southern California Edison’s government relations manager, Rudy Gonzales, explained the power company’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan, which includes not only the power shutoff option (PSPS) during high winds, but a vegetation management program of trimming or removing trees near power lines, undergrounding utility lines, and installing “covered conductor” lines capable of withstanding more wear and tear. In addition, SCE is setting up its own weather stations and high-definition cameras to monitor conditions, and has its own team of meteorologists. 

Gonzales emphasized that if a PSPS looked likely, water providers, hospitals and the like would get 48 hours advance notice, while most customers would get 24 hours’ notice of a power shutoff. Customers should go to sce.com and make sure their contact information is updated. 

Jerry Vandermeulen can be contacted at 310.456.2489 ext. 387 or jvandermeulen@malibucity.org.

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