Santa Monica Mountains residents seek more responsibility for fighting fire

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Two autumns ago, a fire in Malibu’s Corral Canyon destroyed more than 50 houses and caused $100 million of damage. Since then, some people who live in and around the Santa Monica Mountains have started their own fire protection efforts. KPCC’s Molly Peterson profiles one of these groups.

Firefighters: It’s going to be a blowtorch down here. Be careful when it makes its move.

Molly Peterson: The Corral Canyon fire sears the memory of people like Don Schmitz. Watching that fire jump poorly cleared roads into the next canyon over from his house sparked his thinking about how to prepare for next time.

Don Schmitz: And I realized that if there was a real road there and if there was hydrants there, if there was water, that the fire department would have been able to stop that fire at the top of that ridge line. It wouldn't have gotten over into Carbon Canyon, where it burned for another two days, burned up a dozen or so homes, and put hundreds of peoples’ lives at risk.

Peterson: Don Schmitz is a longtime Malibu developer. These days he’s taken on a second job – as head of the Coalition for Fire Safe Communities. His nonprofit wants to drum up support for firebreaks cut on ridges, with water mains buried in the hills. He doesn’t intend to replace the fire department, just to help it.

Schmitz: It's a force multiplier, if you will.

Peterson: During Corral Canyon, one homeowner used his own tanker truck and engine to defend properties the fire department couldn’t get to. Schmitz says that’s helped generate interest in his coalition. Even simple questions, like how much brush to clear around your house, can get complicated fast.

Schmitz: For environmental considerations, the Coastal Commission, many people within the SP and national park system, want to see the minimum amount of brush clearance that they can, to protect habitat. Whereas the insurance companies and the fire department would like to see as much as they possibly can.

Peterson: Schmitz’s coalition is one of several Malibu groups that’s sprouted in the last couple of years. Malibu West has organized its own nonprofit, a fire safe council, and has raised money for a water tank. L.A. County Fire deputy chief John Todd says his department’s trying to stay in contact with these groups, in part to keep watch on them.

John Todd: People have good intentions but when they have not been in the middle of one of these wind-driven fire events it becomes a very challenging environment, and not everybody is prepared to deal with that.

Peterson: As for Schmitz’s proposal for fire breaks and water mains, Todd says firefighters did cut firebreaks into the Santa Monica Mountains 40 years ago. He’s seen pictures. But there were drawbacks.

Todd: The annual maintenance of these fire breaks had a huge environmental cost with invasive species, and not only that, but a lot of erosion. Over time it became very costly to keep these fire breaks maintained.

Peterson: The plan the Coalition for Fire Safe Communities is floating carries a hefty price tag – 50 to 80 million dollars, Schmitz estimates. He proposes raising it through property assessments, but he says fires inevitably will cost more.

Schmitz: It does seem that we are getting annually pounded now here in the state of California. And those fire events will happen, we know that. We can’t fool ourselves anymore.

Peterson: John Todd agrees with Schmitz that people in Malibu should prepare. Todd is L.A. County Fire’s delegate to a regular meeting about how local, state, and federal agencies position themselves for fire in the Santa Monica Mountains. He’s just not sure that Schmitz’s plan to clear land and bury water mains will fly.

Todd: I’d say it’s going to be tough to get everybody on board and support this plan – and I don’t think we’re there yet.

Peterson: Agencies have long struggled to work with one another in the mountains. That cooperation, and the response to fires, may come under more strain if more citizen firefighters join the mix.