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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
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
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
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.
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