Paradise comes at a price

With 27 miles of some of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world and spectacular coastal canyons with vistas of the sea and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Malibu residents would seem to live charmed lives. But they know all too well that nature always has the last word. While millions of people come and enjoy the area and its mountain parks every year, wildfires are a feared, unwelcome and regular visitor, and everyone knew that in these red-flag record drought conditions, they were surely coming again.

And the first one came–early Sunday morning on October 21. Dubbed the “Canyon Fire,” it was apparently sparked by a power line downed by hurricane-velocity winds. The worst possible fire scenario. Had the city and first responders not been so ready, the entire parched 153,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains–the largest urban national park in the nation–might have been reduced to ashes.

Southern California has the distinction of being the most dynamic fire ecology in the world. Fortunately, the Los Angeles County Fire Department has the largest urban air force in the country, along with high-tech fire science that they had been using to monitor and predict fire conditions from the beginning of the year. Because the fire professionals were so proactive in trying to anticipate where the next wildfires would be most likely be, they had engines and other assets staged in key areas, including Malibu’s rugged canyons.

As a result, when the first report came in at 4:50 a.m. that Sunday morning, they were on the scene almost immediately. Forty-five engines were there within minutes to fight the fire on the ground. Firefighters from the area’s park and open-space agencies, and coming in mutual aid from other fire departments, mobilized.

The howling winds that were driving the fire in all directions, plus blanketing smoke that hid ridges and peaks and lines of sight as to where the fire was actually burning, made use of the helicopters and tanker planes extraordinarily dangerous and severely limited the ability of pilots to drop water and flame retardant with their usual pin-point accuracy. But in wind conditions that were nearly knocking people off their feet, they somehow kept flying, and the firefighters on the ground kept going, working grueling 12/12 shifts fighting the fire from behind the lines since it was so aggressive and unpredictable that they dared not get in front of it.

We hear the word “hero” thrown around loosely by people. It seems entirely insufficient to describe the men and women who I saw fighting the Canyon Fire to the point of exhaustion, and who then headed off to do it again and again and again as new and far more devastating and deadly fires were breaking out in communities further to the south.

Preparation by homeowners helped keep losses in the Canyon Fire at such a minimum–nine homes destroyed, three businesses, and the Malibu Presbyterian Church that was a hillside landmark overlooking the community. Four firefighters were injured, but, thankfully, all minor. Clearing brush and creating a defensible space around canyon homes undoubtedly saved hundreds. Building with fire-resistant materials was critical. Landscaping with succulents and other plant materials that will not burn stopped flames from reaching many residences. When ordered to evacuate, the vast majority of the residents did so, leaving the roads traffic-free for firefighters to get where they needed to be as quickly as possible.

As the enormous number of fires that were burning all week come under control, questions are already being asked about why certain things were done, or weren’t done, or not fast enough, etc. Plenty of time for all that. For now, it is time to express our great pride and gratitude to the firefighters and law enforcement and the California National Guard and to all the others too numerous to list who constantly put themselves in harm’s way in service to our great state. I hope they are finally getting some well deserved rest.

Lastly, I send my thoughts and prayers to everyone who lost a loved one, or a home and precious family memories, whether in 41st AD or in the districts that my Assembly colleagues and I are so honored to represent. We will do whatever is in our power to help in the recovery, and to insure that California remains fully ready to respond to whatever emergency situations may again come our way.

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