Malibu Fires Essay Research Paper Malibu FiresHuman

Malibu Fires Essay, Research Paper Malibu Fires Human beings are able to adapt to almost any environment, unfortunately sometimes we take advantage of our natural surroundings. We find ourselves

Malibu Fires Essay, Research Paper

Malibu Fires

Human beings are able to adapt to almost any environment, unfortunately

sometimes we take advantage of our natural surroundings. We find ourselves

amidst a struggle between our lifestyles and nature. Although we affect nature

profoundly 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 following

its course. As a result, we must learn to coexist with it. Fire is a naturally

occurring phenomenon which humans have learned to deal with throughout history.

Yet when fire burns uncontrollably, there is great potential for monumental

damage to all surrounding biomass. The Malibu wildfires are an example of one

such instance.

Historically, wildfires had been left to burn uncontrolled for weeks.

Fires were caused by different sources such as lightning or human hunters who

wanted 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 the

low population density and the fact that the fires were not very intense. As

people began to change from a hunting-gathering society to agriculturists, they

settled in communities. Homes built among the wild brush were perfect prey to

wildfires. Initially, wildfires were put out immediately and people were barred

from setting fires in open spaces. Due to the policy of fire suppression, only

one percent of all wildfires escaped early control. The land was safe from

fires temporarily, but this set the stage for catastrophe as the brush grew more

dense.

There have been more than 20 catastrophic wildfires in Los Angeles

County 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 affected

the Southern California environment. Almost every square mile of chaparral land

in Los Angeles county has been burned at least once, since 1919. There are

basically two large fire breeding grounds in Los Angeles county: the San

Gabriel Mountain range and the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1993, the Kinneloa

Fire in Altadena caused a great amount of damage to the surrounding area and

destroyed 121 homes in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was the

most devastating fire in the area, surpassing the previous worst fire in 1980

that burned 55 homes at the mouth of the San Gabriel Canyon. The total damage

caused by wildfires in the San Gabriel Mountains within the past 60 years

amounted to the loss of 332 homes.

Statistically, Malibu and its surrounding area has seen much damage done

to its vegetation and inhabitants. There have been 24 wildfires that burned a

total of 271,047 acres since 1927. These fires have caused a total of five

deaths 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 Malibu

Canyon fire in 1970. In the Malibu Fire, 103 homes were destroyed; in the

Dayton Fire, 85 homes were destroyed. The Malibu Canyon Fire, which joined

forces with the New Hall Fire on September 25, 1970, destroyed a total of 135

homes and burned through a total of 85,000 acres (Wildfire sec. 2 p.1). Out of

all the homes burned, 70 were located in Malibu and 65 in Chatsworth (Wildfire

sec. 2 p.1). Previous to that fire, the last time Topanga Canyon had seen a

damaging fire was December 30, 1956, when 74 homes were destroyed (Wildfire sec.

3 p.1). Another painful memory for Topanga Canyon occurred between 1938 and

1943, during which time three fires destroyed more than 600 structures.

1993 featured one of Malibu’s most devastating firestorms. When

traveling through Malibu’s scenic landscape, it is almost impossible to imagine

that 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, wind

pattern, and lust biomass for wildfires. During the 1993 fires, biomass growing

in the Malibu hills acted as fuel, as did the homes that stood nearby. Some long

time residents of Malibu have lost not one but two or even three homes.

Like deciduous forests that have adequate moisture levels and cool

climates, Malibu is very rich in vegetation. However, Malibu experiences a

natural phenomenon unknown to deciduous forests: during the fall and early

winter months, strong Santa Ana winds take regular trips through Malibu and out

to the ocean. As the Santa Ana winds blow through, evaporating whatever

moisture is left in the chaparral after the long dry summer, relative humidity

can drop below 10 percent. Once a fire starts, it is nearly impossible to

contain, until the Santa Ana winds die down. Malibu has a history of wildfires

which “historically follow well-defined wildfire corridors. When large and

damaging 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 government

officials throughout the state of California. The temperature in Southern

California was abnormally hot with very little humidity present in the

atmosphere and the Santa Ana winds were starting to gain in intensity. A seven

year drought had created massive amounts of dead undergrowth and the recent

heavy winter rains had caused an abundance of light fuels to be produced. This

was a perfect scenario for disaster.

On November 2, 1993, the Los Angeles County fire department was notified

about a potential fast moving brush fire that had started at the top of the Old

Topanga Canyon road, nestled within the Santa Monica Mountains. The fire was

moving rapidly towards the Malibu coastline at a speed of approximately 1.75

m.p.h. due to 30-50 mile per hour winds. The 40+ year old vegetation in the

surrounding area was providing ample fuel for a conflagration.

In less than four hours from the start of the fire, the damage inflicted

to the land was immense. Seven miles of the deep brushed Carbon Canyon had been

incinerated by the unforgiving fiery beast. From Carbon Canyon, the fire spread

onwards 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 had

burned 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 intensity

of 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 was

spreading further east and west. At three in the afternoon, the west ridge of

the fire was close to containment but the east ridge threatened the Topanga

Canyon community of Fernwood. With the help of eight water-dropping

helicopters 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 Los

Angeles City Fire Department minimized its manpower. Although there was no

major fire activities within Malibu after November 3rd, some fire companies

remained on the scene and fortified the perimeters of the fire area until 6 PM

on November 5th, 1993. They did this to prevent any embers from igniting into

another serious fire that would burn more of the deep undergrowth that showered

the Malibu region.

There were many complications that took place throughout the fire

ravaged area. Along the eastern ridge of the fire, many high voltage power lines

were burnt which eliminated power to homes in the surrounding communities and

also presented complications with the fire department’s electrically run hydrant

system pumps. The fire companies resorted to using water from local swimming

pools to put out some of the encroaching flames instead of using the pumped

water from the hydrants. Fatigue, injury, and a feeling of vulnerability faced

many of the firefighters as they were faced with a major fire that continually

jumped from one structure to another. Some fire personnel worked 24 to 36 hours

straight in order to prevent homes from being torn apart by the blistering

inferno. Even beyond fatigue and injury, firefighters dealt with problems that

they had no control over. Many streets in the city of Malibu are closely

intertwined with the environment. Dense overgrowth crowded the narrow streets

which made it virtually impossible for fire crews to challenge some of the house

fires with the appropriate equipment. Ornamental plants and overgrowth also

added to the intensity of the fire making it hard for firefighters to get close

to the burning houses. The topography of Malibu presented the biggest problem

to the firefighting effort. Much of Malibu consists of steep canyon walls that

drop down to narrow roadways. “With a fire burning with as much as 22,500 BTU

per foot per second, firefighters often had to abandon a position before their

path 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 traveled

seven 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 over

7,000 homes. At the height of the fire, 7136 fire personnel were involved with

the protection of structures (Firestorm 1993, p.6. sec.1). Over 400 different

firefighting agencies from all around Southern California participated in

fighting this fire. 565 firefighters suffered injuries, 21 civilians were

injured and three civilians died as a result of this massive inferno.

Despite the care taken in preventing fires, they are inevitable. Fires

that occur naturally or under carefully monitored circumstances can be

beneficial to the environment. Unfortunately, many fires result from human error

and carelessness, and do not positively affect the environment. It would be

extremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely rid of dangerous and

damaging 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 fire

that affects a niche/ecosystem, a concerted effort should be taken to study its

effects and analyses should be conducted in hopes of getting prepared for “the

next time.” There are many lessons to be learned from the Malibu Fires,

especially concerning water supply, vegetation, brush clearance, and

building/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 the

fires occurred in mountainous terrain complicated matters because the water

supply is broken down into several isolated systems, unlike the network system

that exists in many urban areas. The mountainous water systems were designed to

fight structure fires, not wildfires. This is due to a less concentrated water

supply to fight fires. Another problem faced by Malibu was that the water

systems were not capable of storage at the levels needed to fight a wildfire.

This is because huge storage tanks are more susceptible to breakdown than

smaller ones due to technical issues and damage caused by earthquakes.

Vegetation posed another problem during the Malibu fires. Due to its dry

brush-like vegetation the fire grew stronger and more uncontrollable, as it fed

on its “fuel.” A solution to this problem is to investigate plant species that

are less flammable. For example, the eucalyptus tree, which is highly

susceptible to fires due to its high concentration of oil, should be avoided in

the design of landscapes. In addition, a balance between soil erosion protection

and fire hazard reduction must be met through the choice of appropriate

vegetation. Protecting the soil from erosion should improve its quality, which

in turn is necessary for healthy vegetation. Vegetation has the potential to

increase the moisture content of an environment, and also to decrease

temperatures. These two outcomes would be beneficial to the environment, as long

as vegetation that is least susceptible to fire is found.

In addition to planting the appropriate vegetation, proper brush

clearing must be practiced. Densely planted vegetation spurs a fire on, as its

flames can hop from plant to plant. In general, the Fire Department recommends

that vegetation within 30 feet of structures be eliminated completely or thinned

of dead material. Acacia, Cedar, Cypress, and Eucalyptus trees are specifically

pointed out, as are dry annual grasses, shrubs, and Juniper, which are all

highly flammable. Vegetation within 30 to 100 feet should be thinned as

appropriate, planted in isolated “islands” of vegetation, and dead materials

should be removed. These are all measures that can be taken by individual

homeowner, if they so choose. In addition, independent contractors can be hired

to do the job. Brush clearing can be an aesthetic advantage as well as promote

healthy vegetation growth.

Building structures must also be analyzed to abate wildfires. For

example, instead of using wood roof shingles, residents should use light-

colored, non-combustible roof coverings. This will increase albedo of the

environment, thus reducing the environment’s temperature. Also, swimming pools

are a worthwhile investment, for the Fire Department can incorporate drains that

will allow water to be used during fires. In addition, the area will experience

increased moisture level, and albedo will increase due to the reflective nature

of 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 taken

simultaneously. It is not enough to have an outstanding water system, or a well

trained Fire Department. Fires naturally rage out of control. Therefore, people

must be educated on the aspects that they can help control, such as those

mentioned above. If the people of Malibu plan on continuing their stay on a

naturally fire-prone environment, they must learn to adapt their lives to it.

These measures, however, are not limited to Malibu residents. Everyone can learn

something from their tragic experience.

Human beings attempt to fight nature by trying to change or disturb its

natural surroundings for the sole benefit of consumption. This is not only bad

for the environment, but also for its inhabitants. When Malibu was home to the

Chumash Indians, old vegetation was periodically burned to foster growth of new

vegetation. The Chumash, who were more closely connected to nature than we are

now, learned how and when to cause fires. “A long time ago the Chumash were

here and they used to burn the brush every once and a while. It did wonders for

the vegetation. the flowers were so beautiful. Then we built houses in their

way. we really should not be here (Resident of Malibu).” Perhaps we should

learn from their techniques: rather than allowing the chaparral to dry out and

die (causing a high fire risk), we should clear out old vegetation to prevent

massive fires and learn to respect the environment in which we live in, not

abuse it. Nature is not man’s enemy, but should be seen as an ally. Humans

need to learn about their environment in hopes that a better understanding of

natural processes will help humans to peacefully coexist with it.