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Southern California Fire Season is Back

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Southern California Fire Season is Back

An Early Fire Season Follows a Dry Winter For the State

According to Mike Rosenberg’s June 11, 2012 article, “Dry Winter Has California Nervous About Fire Season,” on the MercuryNews.com website, fire season officially began May 28th in the Bay Area when seasonal fire stations were staffed. Usually delayed until late summer to the mid-fall, this year’s highest fire risk comes at least a month earlier than usual. Craig Clements, a Fire Science Professor at San Jose State was quoted, “Everything’s already dried out. We might bet to the point in June where we would be usually in July.” Based just on one area of Cal Fire patrols, almost 1,800 brush fires have burned almost 10,400 acres as compared to last year’s figures of almost 950 fires that burned close to 6,000 acres.

A Year-Round Fire Season For Southern California?

That’s better news than what’s been repeated for half a decade in the Southern California. As early as 2007, the Los Angeles Times website was printing articles warning of a fulltime fire season in the area. In one piece, “Malibu’s Fire Season Now Year-Round,” staff writers quoted still-serving Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “We don’t have a fire season anymore. We have a year-round first season, and it has profound implications for how policymakers … are going to plan for the future, because you can no longer plan for a September-through-November fire season.”

The Formula For a Bad Fire Season

According to Professor Clements, wildfire prediction is “tricky.” Most fires start secondary to accident or negligence, although a not insignificant number are attributed to arson and lightening causes a number as well. Generally, the first part of the equation starts with dry vegetation usually from drought, although some years of above-average spring rains can incongruously produce bumper crops of potential fuel loads which dry from the combination of the hot summer months and competitive overgrowth.

Clements continues our wildfire lesson in his interview. In addition to dry fuel, high temperatures and a low humidity are necessary to set the stage with for the event, providing dry, hot fuel loads that lack sufficient moisture that might have conceivably dampened a spark enough to put the tiny fire out. Finally, wildfires that spread beyond their original area of ignition after exhausting available fuel require “gusty winds” to transport the fire and flame to new fuel and acreage. Large fires create their own weather and wind due to the enormous oxygen deficit produced by the inferno.

The Unique Stage For Malibu Fires: A Natural History

Long before Malibu became synonymous with the good life and desirable real estate, Mother Nature had devised other plans to periodically keep the area clean and well kept, at least from a natural perspective. As the website MalibuComplete.com remarks, “[f]ires in Malibu are an ancient phenomenon, part of a natural cycle of vegetation growth, drought, and fire.” The unique geography and flora of the area sets the stage for this cycle perfectly. The canyons of Malibu run north-to-south and are covered with “dry chaparral brush,” the extent and depth of which depends upon the ancient fire cycle described above. Combine the Santa Ana winds, enough available fuel, dry conditions, high temperatures and a spark or two and you have the beginning of the natural Malibu fire cycle.

Further, the details “designed” into the system all contribute to ensure that a fire of near-Biblical proportions will roll through the area every “15 to 45 years.” Chaparral is a near-perfect fire fuel: small enough to catch fire quickly, woody enough to produce a significant fire, infused with volatile oils to ensure the fire will burn long and hot enough to catch adjacent fuel on fire. The dry Santa Ana winds first gust through the area, leeching away available humidity out of the soil and plant life and then act to spread fires already ignited.

A Brief History of Modern Malibu Fires

According to the website MalibuComplete.com, the area’s “first major fire disaster” took place on October 26, 1929. While most of the Malibu Colony was obliterated, there was no reported loss of life and very few residents were even home. Reportedly, most were attending the Cal State and Stanford football game — “the state’s premier annual sports event” — in Palo Alto that evening. The stock market crashed as the residents returned to find their homes in ashes. “Luckily” for some of the newly homeless and penniless, there were no remaining structures to leap from in order to commit suicide.

The Malibu-related website provides the following list of modern fires in the area that destroyed multiple residences:

  • Malibu fire in 1956
  • Malibu fire in October 1958
  • Malibu Canyon fire in September 1970
  • Malibu fire October 1978
  • Malibu fire in 1982
  • Malibu fire in October 1985
  • November 2, 1993 Old Topanga Malibu fire
  • Malibu fire in October 1996
  • Malibu fire in January 2003
  • Malibu fire in January 2007
  • Malibu fires in October-November 2007

The Lessons of the 1993 Old Topanga Malibu Fire

The 1993 Old Topanga Malibu is of particular to note. It killed three and destroyed almost 400 houses and ancillary structures. Among the reasons cited for the enormity of the destruction included homes that did not meet the newer fire-resistant building codes, roads that fire trucks could not maneuver, uncleared brush that and water lines dating from the 1930’s that failed. Although an enormous amount of damage and loss resulted from the Old Topanga fire, reasons that allowed the fire to spread or prevented authorities from properly fighting the fires were addressed via new building codes, new road regulations, replacement of water mains and regular brush clearing, among some aspects.

A Christmas Eve Scare in 2009

Despite the regulatory and infrastructure changes m andated and put into place by the 1993 Old Topanga fire, a Christmas Eve firestorm roared through Malibu in 2009 frightening residents and bringing back memories of the infamous 1993 event. Kim Devore of The Malibu Times wrote in her article, “Deju Vu: Malibu Firestorm Brings Back Painful Memories of 1993 Fires,” of the community’s response to the fire and its potential. She quoted long-time resident Pete McKellar on the situation with the wisdom of his then 49 years in the community:

“There’s no comparison. That one started way back near the freeway so it had a chance to fuel and get rolling,” he said. “The winds were at a higher speed and more sustained. It came over the hill and in five hours 200 homes were gone. This is more protracted, but that was a real firestorm.”

Nonetheless, Las Flores Canyon was under a m andatory evacuation order on Monday, December 21 prior to Devore’s article. Subsequent news coverage indicates that damage was “minimal” in comparison to past fires and especially the 1993 inferno.

Resources for Property Owners

According to its website, “the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center (OSCC) is the focal point for coordinating the mobilization of resources for wild l and fire and other incidents” in Southern California. It provides predictive information, wildfire status information and links to many government and private resources.

Prevention Tips to Avoid Wild Fire Threats When Camping or Outdoors

According to Mike Rosenberg’s article of MercuryNews.com:

  • Don’t keep a campfire smoldering. In fact, try to avoid this option entirely. “Use portable gas stoves when cooking away from home.”
  • If you do need to use a campfire, ensure that all ashes are cool to the touch before departure.
  • Don’t toss cigarette butts out of car windows. Use your ashtray.
  • Don’t drive or park your car over a high grass or high-brush area.

According to a June 16th article in the Lake County News:

  • Equip All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), off-road vehicles and chainsaws with spark arresters.

Prevention Tips to Avoid Wild Fire Threats to Your Home and Property

According to Mike Rosenberg’s article of MercuryNews.com:

  • Be particularly careful when using power equipment, “a primary source of fires, particularly when grass is higher than normal.”
  • Avoid using a lawn mower to cut high grass.
  • Wait until mornings or cool days before beginning the chore of cutting dead grass within 100 feet of your home.
  • Keep your roof clear and clean of leaves in the event of area wildfires and floating embers.
  • Be careful when grilling out at home using charcoal. Be certain to fully extinguish flames and embers after cooking.

According to a June 16th article in the Lake County News:

  • Equip all chainsaws for around-the-home use with spark arresters.

According to a 2007 National Public Radio (NPR) transcript interview between hosts Robert Siegel, Melissa Block and Dr. Max Moritz, a fire ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley:

  • “[T]he most effective thing to consider is the wooden roof aspect, to rule that out. And we’re not seeing that as much on a new construction. The other is the venting. A lot of the new vent design looks more or less like a typical vent, but it has actually a screen over it to keep embers from getting in. Windows – double-pane windows, for example, the siding on homes and so on, these are all aspects of fire-resistant construction that need to be considered.”

According to Firewise.Org website for homeowners:

  • Trim overhanging branches;
  • Remove dead leaves from around your home and other structures;
  • Remove tall, dry grass from around the house using an electric weed eater, on a cool, humid morning;
  • Remove or trim back overgrown shrubbery with electric pruners or h and pruners;
  • Remove dead leaves from the roof and gutters;
  • Remove the lower limbs of trees to prevent a grass fire from igniting trees in the yard
  • Keep hoses, fittings, spigots and sprayers in good operating condition.

The Firewise website has a number of additional resources homeowners may find helpful, including construction tips, l andscaping guides, remodeling hints and construction of fire wise homes.

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