Why Does Malibu Have So Many Fires?

While Malibu has always had fires, Woolsey was by and large the most destructive. Is this the new normal?

By Holly Bieler

Fire has long been the price of living in Malibu. The rewards, vast and obvious to anyone who’s driven through its 13 spectacular miles but once, were perhaps best described by Frederick Rindge, the Cambridge-born businessman and L.A.-émigré often credited as the founder of modern-day Malibu. Upon surveying Malibu for the first time in 1892, then little more than coastal farmland, he wrote: “To absorb the peace the hills have… to receive the strength of the mountains, by dwelling in their company: this is living! To lose one’s self by the side of the sea! Free indeed am I!” Five years later Rindge and his wife, May, would build their dream property in the same area, a 13,000-square foot ranch spanning the eastern edge of Malibu, with a beautiful, stately ranch home at the mouth of Malibu Canyon.

It wouldn’t stand more than a decade. In the early hours of December 4, 1903, Rindge’s ranch hands awoke to find smoke barreling down Malibu Canyon. Buoyed by strong Santa Anas, a small Calabasas brush fire had transformed into a major conflagration by dawn, and in hours would level the Rindge property and much of eastern Malibu before gutting Kanan and Trancas down to county line.  

By dawn the next morning, the fledgling town of Malibu, all of 6 years old, was no longer.

For as long as there’s been Malibu, there’s been fire. Sediment collected in the Santa Barbara Channel shows that large fires have occurred in the Santa Monica Mountains on a regular basis for the last 600 years. In fact, they played an integral part in the Chumash Indians’ way of life, who began to rely on the wildfire which consistently erupted during the summer months to manage their landscape and aid in farming practices. Since the state began keeping records of fires, in the early 1900s, Malibu has recorded an average of two wildfires every ten years. 

“When people think of big fires in Malibu, its part of our history,” said Malibu City Council Member and Captain of Fire Station 72 in Decker Canyon, Rick Mullen. “It’s part of our lifestyle.”

With Woolsey, however, Malibu saw a fire unparalleled in it modern history. By and large the biggest and most destructive to hit Malibu since California began keeping records, the fire burnt approximately 600 homes in Malibu and nearly 97,000 acres before all was said and done, dwarfing the numbers of all other fires that have hit the area over the last century. And while people have accepted the threat of fire in exchange for the rewards of living in Malibu for years, since the Rindges’ built their dream home only to see it summarily burn down only a few years later, the toll of Woolsey suggests an entirely different monster. In it’s wake, many Malibu-ites have been left wondering if this scope is the new normal, and if, ultimately, it’s worth it.

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“Fires have gotten worse in California,” said Dr. Travis Longcore, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. “But I hesitate to blame global warming, or the natural cycle of wildfires, because that’s letting people off too easily. We’re building in areas where we shouldn’t be.”

Richard A. Minnich, a professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Riverside, echoed this sentiment, saying that while many are quick to blame global warming for the increasingly destructive fires which have ravaged California in recent years, a larger factor is the increasing development of Southern California land that is known historically to burn.

“We have to ask the question: can the land use be sustained,” he said. “And with the current conditions of housing construction, and the nature of chaparral and the Mediterranean climate in Southern California, with long-term summer drought every year, it is just not possible to protect these structures.”

Fire plays an integral role in the ecology of Southern California, Minnich said, ridding areas like the Santa Monica Mountains of old organic matter that wouldn’t be cleared without it.  

1935  The Latigo/Sherwood Fire traveled a similar route as Woolsey through Point Dume, destroying most of its eastern edge.

1935 The Latigo/Sherwood Fire traveled a similar route as Woolsey through Point Dume, destroying most of its eastern edge.

“Anywhere in the world, you have to have a conservation of biological mass,” he said. “But in the dry climates of Southern California, this decomposition is really inefficient.”

Plant growth can’t occur without getting rid of old plant matter, in essence. In many areas of the world this doesn’t present a problem: during warm, humid months, biological matter like old plants and brush tends to decompose organically. Not so in Southern California.   “Here, when it’s wet it’s cold and when it’s dry, it’s not humid,” he said. “Nothing breaks down, really. So instead of organic breakdown we get inorganic breakdown, through rapid oxidation: fire.”

That breakdown is integral, allowing for new plants to grow, enriching soil with nutrients and allowing for new varieties of plants to grow which can only germinate following a fire. And the longer the land goes without this breakdown, without catching fire, the more deadly that fuel becomes when it ultimately does.

Dr. Longcore said this is one of the reasons Woolsey might have proven so destructive.

“Some of that chaparral in the [Santa Monica Mountains] hadn’t burned for 70 years,” he said. “It was due.”

Council member Mullen said the extremely dry chaparral was a major factor for the strength of the fire. “Once [the fire] crosses the 101, it hits a heavy brush area and the topography of the canyons and the mountains channels the wind,” he said. “And really I think the biggest factor was the long drought period, that it had gone on for so long. The fuels in all these heavy brush areas were super dry, really susceptible to spotting. The fire just leapfrogged as the wind picked up the embers.” That chaparral goes so long without burning, becoming more destructive each year, is in many ways yet another side effect of the development of fire-threatened areas, Minnich said. Contemporary fire management strategies focus on containment, on putting out all fires quickly to save life and structures. However Minnich said this strategy can ultimately make fires more severe when they do occur.

“In the 19th century, before contemporary fire department management, there were a lot more fires making fire-scarred patches on the landscape,” he said. “Those fire-scarred patches have no fuel. So when another fire got to it a few years later, it wouldn’t burn.” During this time fires would often occur in the summer, when humidity in the Santa Monica Mountains was higher and off-shore breezes could help quell fires. Thus fires generally moved more slowly, and burnt less acres.

However as development has increased and fire departments have adopted strategies to contain every blaze that ignites, fires now generally occur only under the most extreme conditions. In Southern California this means fall, when treacherous Santa Ana winds blow and drought-dry chaparral is often at its most lethal. And when fires do ignite, there are acres upon acres to burn, with no pockets of already-burnt land to help retard the flames.

Indeed this was another of the major contributing factors to Woolsey’s scale.

“Maybe that’s why it got so bad,” Council member Mullen said. “It just hadn’t burnt in so long. Historically, pre-European man being here, fires in this area were a normal occurrence, [and chaparral burnt more].”

This, if anything, is the silver lining to Woolsey, Minnich said, something of a somber consolation to effected Malibuites wondering if they should expect anything like Woolsey again in the near future.

“They always have to do the doom and gloom part when they’re firefighting, then as soon as the firefighting ends, they forget to state one little fact,” Minnich said. “Guess what? There’s a removal of energy.”

“It wont be that scale in those areas for quite a while,” Council Member Mullen said. “But remember, Topanga and that whole area didn’t burn. There’s still plenty of bad things that could happen in this area.” MM

Holly Bieler