Fire: Prepare for the Worst while Enjoying the Best

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People living in Severe Fire areas are eager to learn their role in preventing fires and keeping their homes and neighborhoods safe. Two public agencies are helping them prepare.

Let’s face it. The Woolsey fire missed Topanga by a hair.

We live in fire country. Not just any fire country but fire country defined in superlatives: “Extreme,” “Severe,” and not just “Dangerous” but “Hazardous.” 

We’ve recently experienced three small fires in the area within weeks of each other—The Cheney (vehicle) fire on July 26 that threatened the Community Center; the Palermo fire in Pacific Palisades on August 13; and the Sweetwater fire in Malibu on August 30. All were quickly knocked down thanks to early detection, mild to moderate winds, and quick response, but if we think we’re safe from fire, don’t. Complacency is our real enemy.  

In its effort to counteract that tendency, Topanga’s water district, West Basin Municipal Water District 29, hosted a firescape presentation, based on firescaping expert Douglas Kent’s book, Firescaping: Protecting Your Home with a Fire-Resistant Landscape, on August 21 at the Topanga Library, to further instruct us on making our homes fire-resistant. 

The next day, August 22, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation (LVHF) and LA County Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl presented “Fire Fact Forum: The Science of Fire” at the King Gillette Ranch auditorium. Both meetings were well attended and it was heartening to see how eager people were to heighten their awareness and understanding of their role as we face the growing threat of catastrophic fires in our communities.

Gus Meza, the Senior Water Efficiency Specialist for West Basin Municipal Water District, introduced Kent to a packed meeting room at the Topanga Library on August 21.

“Before the meeting tonight,” Kent began, “I toured around Topanga.” Shaking his head, he said, “It’s not good.”

A murmur and some chuckles, went through the audience. Most of them know that what he had seen with his expert eyes were narrow, dead-end roads, cul-de-sacs, overgrown trees and brush crowding roads, and lots of debris and flammable plants too close to homes that, themselves, aren’t remotely fire-resistant. 

“Small roads are death traps for firefighters,” said Kent, who has 35 years of horticulture and firescape experience, creating incentives, and teaching at Cal Poly Pomona. “A road wants to be a welcoming beacon to firefighters with places to turn around and get in and out.”

Kent shared some facts: 

  • Twenty-five percent of the population live in fire country. Compliance with existing laws ranges from three to five percent.

In his book, he writes: “The federal government actively provides and supports model laws and standards for vegetation management in fire hazard areas. However, it does not impose laws on private property…. Those are overseen by state, county, city, and community-association ordinances.”

“We don’t live up to the nature of the law,” Kent said. “There are over 8000 fires in California per year, 20 of which were the most destructive fires. Most laws are from the top down; we never had a grass-roots approach and didn’t motivate people.

“The Gold Rush came and people saw the land as a commodity. In 1950, Smoky Bear and fire suppression came along, a top-down approach. The attitude was ‘Employ It, Apply It, Suppress It.’ We need to invent a new way: roads, structures, defensible space, planting fire-resistant plants at our homes.”

  • Sixty percent of new development in the U.S. is occurring in wildland urban interface (WUI) areas (like Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains). 

“The WUI is an innocuous seam where the flammable woodlands meld into our urban features,”Kent said. “Fuel, heat, and oxygen are fire’s fundamental ingredients. Of these, the homeowner, business owner, or governing agencies can manage only one—fuel.”

In the book Kent writes, “Wildlands are defined as any large plot of land that is not maintained and where the vegetation can naturally grow and reproduce…. They endanger their urban neighbors only when the moisture in the plants drops to ignition levels.” 

 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Our first job is to allow firefighters’ access to the property. Homeowners give up a little to give everyone safety. Know your roads in and out. Living close to a main road is an advantage, but remote driveways in cul de sacs and on narrow roads will not be accessible to firefighters. After the Bel Air fire of 1961, the L.A. Arboretum conceived three concentric zones to create “Defensible Space” around homes.

Topanga is divided into nine evacuation zones, but Kent defines another set of zones: four areas around each home that should be iron-clad defensible space.  

  • Zone 1, Withstand: This the garden and recreational zone, defensible space that extends 30 feet from all sides of the house. It must withstand firebrands (embers) and intense heat between 900 and 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Zone 2, Stop: The “Greenbelt/Fuel Break, 31-70 feet from your home (slopes should add 10 percent), should stop a ground fire. Low-growing, hearty, and water-thrifty plants are themes fire resistant.
  • How do we communicate that we are living in fire country?
  • Zone 3, Slow: The Transition Zone starts 71 feet from your home, farther on slopes. Its primary goal is to dramatically slow a fire. Work in this zone involves managing existing vegetation as opposed to establishing a new type of landscape. Trees and large shrubs should be isolated twice their mature height and grass should be mowed to six inches. 
  • Zone 4, Open Space: For the “Natural/Native Zone,” it’s enough to simply manage the existing plants and fuels. There are three approaches to this: mechanical removal, grazing, and prescribed burns, which are conducted only by CalFire and local fire departments. Note: For the most part, the public is opposed to prescribed burns for fear they’ll get out of hand. However, following decades of research, they are being considered by fire and U.S Forestry agencies as a means of sustainable control. 

 

Kent’s presentation had everyone’s attention throughout the evening, and each of the event’s participants received  an advance copy of the second edition of Kent’s book, Firescaping: Protecting Your Home with Fire-Resistant Landscape, which will be released on October 8.

The book is available to pre-order at amazon.com ($21.95, hardcover; $19.64, paperback) and is highly recommended as an adjunct to homeowners’ efforts to keep their homes and neighborhoods safe.

 

Flavia Potenza
Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at editor@messengermountainnews.com

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