Malibu square mile of chaparral landin Los Angeles
Malibu FiresHuman beings are able to adapt to almost any environment, unfortunatelysometimes we take advantage of our natural surroundings. We find ourselvesamidst a struggle between our lifestyles and nature.
Although we affect natureprofoundly with our activities, we in turn are shaped by nature’s potent forces.Nature can be brutal to humans, but we must remember that it merely is followingits course. As a result, we must learn to coexist with it. Fire is a naturallyoccurring phenomenon which humans have learned to deal with throughout history.
Yet when fire burns uncontrollably, there is great potential for monumentaldamage to all surrounding biomass. The Malibu wildfires are an example of onesuch instance.Historically, wildfires had been left to burn uncontrolled for weeks.Fires were caused by different sources such as lightning or human hunters whowanted to chase animals out of the woods.
As prolonged as these fires were,they had limited catastrophic effects on the nomadic humans. This is due to thelow population density and the fact that the fires were not very intense. Aspeople began to change from a hunting-gathering society to agriculturists, theysettled in communities. Homes built among the wild brush were perfect prey towildfires. Initially, wildfires were put out immediately and people were barredfrom setting fires in open spaces. Due to the policy of fire suppression, onlyone percent of all wildfires escaped early control.
The land was safe fromfires temporarily, but this set the stage for catastrophe as the brush grew moredense.There have been more than 20 catastrophic wildfires in Los AngelesCounty since the beginning of organized fire protection. The first “big one”happened in December of 1927. The fire started in the La Crescenta Valley,climbed over the Verdugo Mountain range and destroyed more than 100 homes.
In addition to the damage caused in 1927, fires have profoundly affectedthe Southern California environment. Almost every square mile of chaparral landin Los Angeles county has been burned at least once, since 1919. There arebasically two large fire breeding grounds in Los Angeles county: the SanGabriel Mountain range and the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1993, the KinneloaFire in Altadena caused a great amount of damage to the surrounding area anddestroyed 121 homes in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was themost devastating fire in the area, surpassing the previous worst fire in 1980that burned 55 homes at the mouth of the San Gabriel Canyon. The total damagecaused by wildfires in the San Gabriel Mountains within the past 60 yearsamounted to the loss of 332 homes.Statistically, Malibu and its surrounding area has seen much damage doneto its vegetation and inhabitants.
There have been 24 wildfires that burned atotal of 271,047 acres since 1927. These fires have caused a total of fivedeaths and the destruction of 1,502 homes along with 830 other structures.Recent fires include the Malibu fire in 1985, Dayton Fire in 1982 and MalibuCanyon fire in 1970. In the Malibu Fire, 103 homes were destroyed; in theDayton Fire, 85 homes were destroyed. The Malibu Canyon Fire, which joinedforces with the New Hall Fire on September 25, 1970, destroyed a total of 135homes and burned through a total of 85,000 acres (Wildfire sec. 2 p.
1). Out ofall the homes burned, 70 were located in Malibu and 65 in Chatsworth (Wildfiresec. 2 p.1). Previous to that fire, the last time Topanga Canyon had seen adamaging fire was December 30, 1956, when 74 homes were destroyed (Wildfire sec.3 p.
1). Another painful memory for Topanga Canyon occurred between 1938 and1943, during which time three fires destroyed more than 600 structures.1993 featured one of Malibu’s most devastating firestorms. Whentraveling through Malibu’s scenic landscape, it is almost impossible to imaginethat this beautiful environment could foster such a deadly fire. Lovely ocean-view homes are nestled within the lush vegetation of the mountainous landscape.In fact, it was Malibu’s beauty that originally lured people to settle there.Unfortunately, Malibu has the ultimate combination of climate condition, windpattern, and lust biomass for wildfires.
During the 1993 fires, biomass growingin the Malibu hills acted as fuel, as did the homes that stood nearby. Some longtime residents of Malibu have lost not one but two or even three homes.Like deciduous forests that have adequate moisture levels and coolclimates, Malibu is very rich in vegetation. However, Malibu experiences anatural phenomenon unknown to deciduous forests: during the fall and earlywinter months, strong Santa Ana winds take regular trips through Malibu and outto the ocean. As the Santa Ana winds blow through, evaporating whatevermoisture is left in the chaparral after the long dry summer, relative humiditycan drop below 10 percent. Once a fire starts, it is nearly impossible tocontain, until the Santa Ana winds die down. Malibu has a history of wildfireswhich “historically follow well-defined wildfire corridors.
When large anddamaging fires occur you’ll find the wind and fire corridors perfectly aligned.”(report 4) This makes it even more difficult to fight a fire.The weather conditions on October 26, 1993, worried many governmentofficials throughout the state of California. The temperature in SouthernCalifornia was abnormally hot with very little humidity present in theatmosphere and the Santa Ana winds were starting to gain in intensity.
A sevenyear drought had created massive amounts of dead undergrowth and the recentheavy winter rains had caused an abundance of light fuels to be produced. Thiswas a perfect scenario for disaster.On November 2, 1993, the Los Angeles County fire department was notifiedabout a potential fast moving brush fire that had started at the top of the OldTopanga Canyon road, nestled within the Santa Monica Mountains. The fire wasmoving rapidly towards the Malibu coastline at a speed of approximately 1.75m.p.
h. due to 30-50 mile per hour winds. The 40+ year old vegetation in thesurrounding area was providing ample fuel for a conflagration.
In less than four hours from the start of the fire, the damage inflictedto the land was immense. Seven miles of the deep brushed Carbon Canyon had beenincinerated by the unforgiving fiery beast. From Carbon Canyon, the fire spreadonwards to the west side of Malibu by Pepperdine University.
On the east end,the fire was moving quickly towards Topanga Canyon. “By Ten P.M., the fire hadburned just north of Malibu on the west and had burned through Carbon Canyon,Rambla Pacifico, Las Flores, Big Rock and into Tuna Canyon on the east(Firestorm 1993, p.4 sec.
1).”After burning fiercely throughout most of the afternoon, the intensityof the fire diminished significantly in the late evening hours of November 2nd.By morning, the Santa Ana winds had picked up again and the conflagration wasspreading further east and west. At three in the afternoon, the west ridge ofthe fire was close to containment but the east ridge threatened the TopangaCanyon community of Fernwood.
With the help of eight water-droppinghelicopters form LA County and two more from the Office of Emergency Services,firefighting companies kept the fire from entering this serene community.By 11 PM on the November 3rd the Malibu fire was contained and the LosAngeles City Fire Department minimized its manpower. Although there was nomajor fire activities within Malibu after November 3rd, some fire companiesremained on the scene and fortified the perimeters of the fire area until 6 PMon November 5th, 1993. They did this to prevent any embers from igniting intoanother serious fire that would burn more of the deep undergrowth that showeredthe Malibu region.There were many complications that took place throughout the fireravaged area.
Along the eastern ridge of the fire, many high voltage power lineswere burnt which eliminated power to homes in the surrounding communities andalso presented complications with the fire department’s electrically run hydrantsystem pumps. The fire companies resorted to using water from local swimmingpools to put out some of the encroaching flames instead of using the pumpedwater from the hydrants. Fatigue, injury, and a feeling of vulnerability facedmany of the firefighters as they were faced with a major fire that continuallyjumped from one structure to another. Some fire personnel worked 24 to 36 hoursstraight in order to prevent homes from being torn apart by the blisteringinferno. Even beyond fatigue and injury, firefighters dealt with problems thatthey had no control over.
Many streets in the city of Malibu are closelyintertwined with the environment. Dense overgrowth crowded the narrow streetswhich made it virtually impossible for fire crews to challenge some of the housefires with the appropriate equipment. Ornamental plants and overgrowth alsoadded to the intensity of the fire making it hard for firefighters to get closeto the burning houses.
The topography of Malibu presented the biggest problemto the firefighting effort. Much of Malibu consists of steep canyon walls thatdrop down to narrow roadways. “With a fire burning with as much as 22,500 BTUper foot per second, firefighters often had to abandon a position before theirpath of egress was involved with flames (Firestorm 1993, p.2 sec.
5).”This fire burned an average of over 1,000 acres per hour and traveledseven miles in six hours to reach the Pacific Coast. Started by an arsonist,the fire destroyed 384 structures and burned over 16,516 acres of land.
Although 384 structures were destroyed, fire personnel managed to save over7,000 homes. At the height of the fire, 7136 fire personnel were involved withthe protection of structures (Firestorm 1993, p.6. sec.1). Over 400 differentfirefighting agencies from all around Southern California participated infighting this fire.
565 firefighters suffered injuries, 21 civilians wereinjured and three civilians died as a result of this massive inferno.Despite the care taken in preventing fires, they are inevitable. Firesthat occur naturally or under carefully monitored circumstances can bebeneficial to the environment. Unfortunately, many fires result from human errorand carelessness, and do not positively affect the environment. It would beextremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely rid of dangerous anddamaging fires, but mitigation of the problem should be looked into and pursued.Every time there is a forest fire, a brush fire, a residential fire, or any firethat affects a niche/ecosystem, a concerted effort should be taken to study itseffects and analyses should be conducted in hopes of getting prepared for “thenext time.
” There are many lessons to be learned from the Malibu Fires,especially concerning water supply, vegetation, brush clearance, andbuilding/fire codes.An area that is troubled by low moisture levels and high temperatures,the hillsides of Malibu were perfect targets for wildfires. The fact that thefires occurred in mountainous terrain complicated matters because the watersupply is broken down into several isolated systems, unlike the network systemthat exists in many urban areas. The mountainous water systems were designed tofight structure fires, not wildfires. This is due to a less concentrated watersupply to fight fires. Another problem faced by Malibu was that the watersystems were not capable of storage at the levels needed to fight a wildfire.
This is because huge storage tanks are more susceptible to breakdown thansmaller ones due to technical issues and damage caused by earthquakes.Vegetation posed another problem during the Malibu fires. Due to its drybrush-like vegetation the fire grew stronger and more uncontrollable, as it fedon its “fuel.
” A solution to this problem is to investigate plant species thatare less flammable. For example, the eucalyptus tree, which is highlysusceptible to fires due to its high concentration of oil, should be avoided inthe design of landscapes. In addition, a balance between soil erosion protectionand fire hazard reduction must be met through the choice of appropriatevegetation. Protecting the soil from erosion should improve its quality, whichin turn is necessary for healthy vegetation. Vegetation has the potential toincrease the moisture content of an environment, and also to decreasetemperatures. These two outcomes would be beneficial to the environment, as longas vegetation that is least susceptible to fire is found.In addition to planting the appropriate vegetation, proper brushclearing must be practiced.
Densely planted vegetation spurs a fire on, as itsflames can hop from plant to plant. In general, the Fire Department recommendsthat vegetation within 30 feet of structures be eliminated completely or thinnedof dead material. Acacia, Cedar, Cypress, and Eucalyptus trees are specificallypointed out, as are dry annual grasses, shrubs, and Juniper, which are allhighly flammable.
Vegetation within 30 to 100 feet should be thinned asappropriate, planted in isolated “islands” of vegetation, and dead materialsshould be removed. These are all measures that can be taken by individualhomeowner, if they so choose. In addition, independent contractors can be hiredto do the job. Brush clearing can be an aesthetic advantage as well as promotehealthy vegetation growth.Building structures must also be analyzed to abate wildfires.
Forexample, instead of using wood roof shingles, residents should use light-colored, non-combustible roof coverings. This will increase albedo of theenvironment, thus reducing the environment’s temperature. Also, swimming poolsare a worthwhile investment, for the Fire Department can incorporate drains thatwill allow water to be used during fires. In addition, the area will experienceincreased moisture level, and albedo will increase due to the reflective natureof water. Best of all, a pool can be refreshing on hot summer days.In order to quell firestorms, there are many measures that must be takensimultaneously.
It is not enough to have an outstanding water system, or a welltrained Fire Department. Fires naturally rage out of control. Therefore, peoplemust be educated on the aspects that they can help control, such as thosementioned above. If the people of Malibu plan on continuing their stay on anaturally fire-prone environment, they must learn to adapt their lives to it.
These measures, however, are not limited to Malibu residents. Everyone can learnsomething from their tragic experience.Human beings attempt to fight nature by trying to change or disturb itsnatural surroundings for the sole benefit of consumption. This is not only badfor the environment, but also for its inhabitants. When Malibu was home to theChumash Indians, old vegetation was periodically burned to foster growth of newvegetation. The Chumash, who were more closely connected to nature than we arenow, learned how and when to cause fires.
“A long time ago the Chumash werehere and they used to burn the brush every once and a while. It did wonders forthe vegetation. the flowers were so beautiful. Then we built houses in theirway. we really should not be here (Resident of Malibu).” Perhaps we shouldlearn from their techniques: rather than allowing the chaparral to dry out anddie (causing a high fire risk), we should clear out old vegetation to preventmassive fires and learn to respect the environment in which we live in, notabuse it. Nature is not man’s enemy, but should be seen as an ally.
Humansneed to learn about their environment in hopes that a better understanding ofnatural processes will help humans to peacefully coexist with it.