Whereas the Woolsey Fire of 2018 was considered to be one of the worst fires in LA County history, it didn’t occur until nine years after the worst wildfire ever to hit Australia. The folks Down Under have had much longer to think about how to do things better in the future than we have, and one of them came to Malibu last week to share what his country has learned. 

The Black Saturday bushfires burned across the Australian state of Victoria in 2009, killing a staggering 173 people and injuring another 414. More than 2,000 houses were destroyed, and the government estimated that up to a million wild and domesticated animals died. The region experiences strong, hot winds, similar to the Santa Ana winds here.

Craig Lapsley, the now-retired emergency management commissioner for the state of Victoria, Australia, was one of the featured speakers at last week’s Resilient Malibu Workshop series hosted by the nonprofit Tree People, which focused on rebuilding more resilient homes and communities. He was joined by a panel of local experts.

The president and founder of Tree People, Andy Lipkis, said climate change is the driving force behind the new intensity of wildfires.

“We want to promote a new understanding—that the climate has changed, and the infrastructure we’ve counted on can no longer do the job with the severity of droughts and wildfires we’re having,’ he said. “We can’t always be rescued by first responders. We’re here to put new options on the table and inspire you to take responsibility.”

Australia came up with new standards for building and landscaping in fire danger areas, including having cisterns and/or tanks on each property that hold at least 4,000 gallons of water, with pipes that won’t melt, according to Lapsley. He also explained that sprinkler systems were required on the defensible space in order to keep the area moist, and that residents were advised to have a gas-powered pump that does not rely on electricity.

He warned people not to keep small flammable items outside that could catch on fire from embers, like brooms and doormats.

Because so many people died in the Black Saturday fires, Lapsley indicated their preferred policy is to evacuate rather than allow residents to stay and fight the fires on their own.

Environmental architect David Hertz recommended that residents collect stormwater, preferably on a gravity-fed system. He said swimming pools should have pumps to make the water more accessible for firefighting. He also recommended using a Class A biodegradable foam on various surfaces prior to an oncoming fire instead of wetting everything down with water, because “water evaporates.” 

Craig George, the city’s environmental sustainability director, had a number of suggestions for rebuilding a more fireproof house: Class A roofing materials, which offer the highest fire resistance; double-pane windows with tempered glass; no wood siding; ember-proof vents; cistern basements; use of fire resistant materials; and keeping all vegetation five feet from the house. 

He went on to say there shouldn’t be any air conditioners on the roof of the house and that air conditioners should be turned off if a fire is coming, because they can suck in burning embers. In addition, a house surrounded by steel fencing with a concrete barrier would be safer, and residents should have the right fittings for the fire department to connect hoses to their home’s water tank system.

During a Q&A, some Malibu residents expressed frustration that the city didn’t seem to be adopting more fireproof building standards in response to the fire— most of the city’s recommendations seem to be optional rather than mandatory. Speakers felt strongly that the city should outlaw the use of highly flammable railroad ties in landscaping, as well banning as wood framing and climbing vegetation like bougainvillea. 

In terms of vegetation advice, J. Lopez with LA County Fire warned that “palm trees generate large embers which travel as far as four miles on the wind.”

In addition, Cassy Aoyagi of Form LA Landscaping said fire-safe landscapes didn’t necessarily mean gravel-scapes, but there are methods to make foliage safe.

“Make sure there’s no clutter or leaf litter,” Aoyagi said. “The five-foot area just outside the house can be planted with native foliage that’s low to the ground and properly spaced. Trees should be far enough away, but trees can actually help by catching embers and saving your home. Native plants will come back after a fire and help protect slopes from erosion.”

Tree People CEO Cindy Montanez emphasized that native coast live oak trees are fire safe: “They’re hard to ignite, and in a fire they just turn brown and then resprout.”

The creation of grassroots neighborhood community groups to prevent and fight fires was also considered crucial—things like sharing phone numbers and creating phone trees.

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