Malibu’s fire season now year-round

Times Staff Writers

Realtor Brian Merrick stood on a high ridge in Malibu, looking out at the smoke Saturday.

His livelihood depends on the chaparral-covered hills. But even now, in a year when three large brush fires have destroyed dozens of Malibu homes, he isn’t worried.

“As soon as we get some rains and the burn turns green, everybody forgets,” Merrick said. “And they come back. It’s not the first fire, and it won’t be the last one.”

Last month, just after much of Malibu burned, Merrick said he closed a deal to sell a home in the Big Rock area.


The buyers “had a little bit of panic,” he said, but “as soon as the fires were out, and everything was clear and beautiful again, they realized why they wanted to be there,” Merrick said Saturday as water-dropping helicopters buzzed overhead. “They had a massive ocean view.”

Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, said that Malibu is a classic case of people being willing to balance risk against benefit.

“There’s the two Ds: desirable and dangerous,” he said. “The places that are most desirable are usually the most dangerous.”

Most years have a definite fire season, experts note. But in this year of extreme drought, the danger has persisted all year. Meteorologists say next year is very likely to be another dry one.

“We don’t have a fire season anymore,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Saturday. “We have a year-round fire season, and it has profound implications for how policymakers and firefighting professionals are going to plan for the future, because you can no longer just plan for a September-through-November fire season.”

Yaroslavsky said long fire seasons result in additional costs. For example, he said, the county leases Super Scooper firefighting aircraft from Quebec, Canada. In earlier years, the lease was only for October and November, he said, but for the last few years the county has required the aircraft well into January.


There is little doubt that Malibu will burn again, and perhaps sooner than later, officials said. Los Angeles has not had more than an inch of rain in any month since April 2006. That’s 18 months of exceptionally dry conditions.

“We’ve had an extremely long drought,” said Jon Keeley, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

And small amounts of rain will do little to help. “Less than an inch in a month is close to zero,” Patzert said. “All it does is give you a little injection of fuel.”

The grasses that quickly sprout after even a light rain become fuel for fires, especially when the Santa Ana winds are around -- which they are for a large chunk of the year, officials said.

“In some ways, these fires, unless there’s more rain, are pretty inevitable,” Patzert said. “Part of our history is that we’re as dry as a bone, and we put human activity in these high-risk areas. It’s an amazing thing there’s not more fires.”

Most of the region’s fires are human-related, said Kelly Redmond, interim director of the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.


“They’re most likely to start where people live,” Redmond said. “People are doing all kinds of stuff, whether it’s smart stuff or not-so-smart stuff. They’re doing people things. And you have people infrastructure, like power lines.”

Realtor David Carter, who lives in Malibu’s Paradise Cove and specializes in selling homes in the beachfront luxury mobile home community, said Malibu’s lure is likely to keep people coming.

After last month’s fire, he said, one client called him to back out of an escrow -- something that rarely happens.

“What do you mean ‘because of the fires’? “ an incredulous Carter demanded of his client. “It was a total mistake,” he said. “Of course, other people are looking at it now.”

Merrick, the other Realtor, said Malibu residents tend to understand the risk. This year, he said, he sold about 20 homes in the area -- up from 10 to 15 in most years.

“Most people know this comes with the territory,” he said. “It’s the price to pay for the beauty of the beach.”


Susan Baldwin bought her home in the El Nido neighborhood in the mid-1990s -- just a month after a wildfire destroyed homes in the area. Her new house came with a “char line” around the perimeter.

She joked with her husband that they bought their home “at a fire sale.”

After being evacuated Saturday from her home along Pacific Coast Highway, Baldwin said that she and her husband knew they were taking a chance living in Malibu. But they accepted the risk.

“You put a lot of faith in the firemen,” she said. “You see how many houses there are, how few actually burn, and you play the odds.”

But for other residents, there was a measure of ambivalence.

As Cameron Waters, 26, sat at a picnic table at Bluffs Park staring at a giant plume of smoke, she wondered about the price of living in Malibu.

“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” said Waters, who has lived in Malibu for three years.

But her roommate, Leah Becherer, 25, interrupted: “I think it’s the sacrifice that you make if you’re living in a beautiful place. For something so beautiful the rest of the year, this is a good reminder not to take it for granted.”

Waters was swayed. “It’s the price you pay for serenity,” she said.