The Sun Sets for Malibu’s Palm Trees

Above, Sunset palms. Fan palms are beautiful but potentially deadly. The dead fronds from this type of palm are highly flammable and can carry embers for miles during a wildfire. The height of mature trees— sometimes more than 60 feet—makes maintenance difficult and dangerous, accounting for as many as six tree-trimming fatalities in Los Angeles County each year. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

City Council Passes Fire Resistant Plant Ordinance

The Malibu City Council has voted to approve a fire-resistant landscape ordinance that bans palm trees, restricts the use of other highly flammable trees, and seeks to create a five-foot wide nonflammable buffer zone around structures.

Burned palms. A row of burned palms are a reminder of how many trees like these burned during the Woolsey Fire. The city of Malibu’s new ordinance was designed to reduce the fire risk of landscaping like this.

The Woolsey Fire damaged or destroyed more than 480 homes in the city of Malibu. Palm fronds, ficus hedges, and garden infrastructure, like decks and fences, are thought to have contributed to the spread of fire in some residential areas that might not have otherwise burned. 

The ordinance, which will apply to new and updated landscaping, is intended to decrease the likelihood that a property will burn and spread fire. There are five key components: restricting the use of highly flammable trees, creating a five-foot-wide defensible space around structures, limiting the height of trees near power lines, and incentivizing nonflammable materials.

The ordinance permits the option for impermeable walls up to six feet in height as an alternative to increasingly popular but highly flammable ficus hedges. It’s unclear how the city will prevent homeowners from planting a ficus hedge in addition to building a six-foot-high wall.

During public comment, John Mazza, a member of the Malibu Planning Commission and a resident who fought the Woolsey Fire in his Point Dume neighborhood and saved many homes, described the frustration that he felt when two houses on his street burned to the ground, in part because of a 12-foot-high ficus hedge and a gated fence that prevented the volunteer firefighters from gaining access to the property but didn’t stop the fire. “The size of the fence in the front yard does not prevent fires,” he said.

The heart of the new ordinance revolves around trees and will ultimately change the look of the community, as the city seeks to lessen fire risk. 

City staff recommended allowing palms up to six feet tall. That compromise was unanimously rejected by the city council.

Mazza also weighed in on the palm tree issue. He described his struggle to extinguish a queen palm, just feet from homes. “It took 45 minutes,” he said. “Palm trees are like little rockets. Even a three-foot palm tree by a front door is the worst thing you can have. Having one by a house is nuts.”

Keegan Gibbs, who also worked to save homes during the Woolsey Fire, cautioned that fires are going to happen no matter what. “This ordinance is to prevent homes from burning down, but it isn’t going to prevent fires,” he said. “The five-foot zone is exponentially most important.”

Gibbs cautioned about the unintended consequences of banning trees like eucalyptus, and the council stopped short of adding other tree species to the palm ban.

Eucalyptus windbreaks, planted throughout Malibu in the 1940s and ’50s, and the pine trees distributed by the fire department in the 1950s and ’60s, have become the dominant landscape feature in many Malibu neighborhoods, together with towering fan, king, and queen palms. That will gradually change as the ordinance goes into effect. 

The new ordinance applies citywide for all new and updated landscaping plans and requires a five-foot defensible space buffer. No trees, flammable shade structures, wooden fencing material or ground covers like mulch, shredded rubber or artificial turf are allowed in the buffer zone or within five feet of the eaves of a structure. The ordinance prohibits the use of wood chip mulch.

There is an exemption on the five-foot rule for trees that can be shown to be critically important overwintering habitat for the monarch butterfly. 

New trees within 20 feet of power lines are limited to 25 feet tall; trees within 50 feet of power lines are limited to a maximum height of 40 feet.

In addition to the fire resistant plant ordinance, the city of Malibu is also currently working on a fountain grass removal plan to address another highly flammable non-native species.

 

For more information, visit www.malibucity.org

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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