Malibu residents might have seen rising smoke near Las Flores Canyon on the morning of Jan. 16, but the flames were not an act of nature. According to LA County Fire Department officials, firefighters administered controlled flames on the fire department’s Camp 8 property in order to dispose of pre-cut brush. Smoke and flames could be seen near the intersection of Las Flores Canyon Road and Rambla Pacifico Street.
Camp 8 Foreman Michael Mellinger—who said he was not present during the exercise—said the Jan. 16 flames were not part of a controlled burn because the area where the flames were lit had already been cleared. He said the burns were a method of disposing of the collected brush.
“Occasionally, we’ll burn piles of brush that we clear around the property,” Mellinger said. “So, basically, we were burning some piles of brush. We always look at the weather—it’s got to be just right. There was pretty good rain coming in later that night, a pretty good storm. So, that’s always the best time to do it.”
Both Fire Safety Liaison Jerry Vandermeulen and LA County Fire Department spokesperson Leslie Lua described the event as a “controlled burn.” When asked about the discrepancy in terminology, Captain John Garza, assigned to Camp 8, said part of the fire department’s process is to call dispatch during a burn, but that dispatchers often label a burn as a “prescribed fire,” which he said is the same as a controlled burn.
“If you take 10 dispatchers, they’re all going to have different ways of putting burns into the system,” Garza said.
A prescribed fire is when firefighters burn the majority of a hillside, Garza said.
“What you’re doing is, you’re taking the fuel load out of it,” he said.
But, he said, on Jan. 16, the firefighters were not administering a prescribed fire, or controlled burn. Instead, they were burning a pre-cut and already dried-out pile of brush, according to Garza.
“Exactly what it is, is burning a pile of dead fuel that we cut off the hillside and dragged down to the flat part and burned there,” Garza said.
He said burning the brush was more environmentally friendly than using a gas-powered wood chipper to shred the vegetation.
“This time of year, it’s completely safe,” Garza said. “It’s actually better for the soil, too.”
Vandermeulen said the City of Malibu was not informed that a burn would be taking place, but that the city has asked to be notified of similar burns in the future, and the fire department has agreed to do so.
Vandermeulen also said that weather conditions were good when the burn took place, and that the flames presented no threat to the City of Malibu. The temperature at the time was in the mid-60s and overcast.
“It was really such a benign little project that they were doing,” Vandermeulen said. “All told, it was a couple of little piles. It would be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of an acre in total.”
Firefighters were not burning standing brush, according to Vandermeulen. He said they were burning piles that they had already cleaned up, and that firefighters had made a training exercise out of the burn.
“We also use it as a training component because some of our equipment that we use to start fires, it’s good training for our crew,” Garza said.
In the future, the city will notify residents of burns in the area, most likely via the city’s social media channels, according to Vandermeulen.