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Posted on: August 29, 2023

Actions Malibu Has Taken to be More Prepared for Wildfires Since the Woolsey Fire

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Nearly five years after the devastating Woolsey Fire, images from the tragic, deadly fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina, Maui, claiming more than 115 lives, have brought up, trauma and fears about the dangers that Malibu faces this wildfire season. Community members want to know if they will be safe, and what the efforts the City is taking to be prepared, and has been taking since the Woolsey Fire to learn from Woolsey, be better prepared, and do everything possible to prevent a tragedy like Lahaina from occurring in Malibu. Learn how you can be prepared for wildfires with the City's Emergency Survival Guide and the City's National Preparedness Month activities in September.     

OVERVIEW - The entire City of Malibu is in a California state-designated Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, as are most communities in the Santa Monica Mountains. This is based on fuel loading, terrain, fire weather, fire history, and other relevant factors, including areas where winds have been identified by the Office of the State Fire Marshal as a major cause of wildfire spread. Fire has been a natural and necessary part of our local ecosystem long before the area was inhabited, so the threat of wildfires has always been a reality for Malibu. However, the size, duration and severity of the Woolsey Fire was unprecedented, and the new normal of drought and extreme weather due to climate change has meant that we have to make plans and be prepared in ways we did not consider in the past.   

The City has always worked to prepare for wildfire season. The Woolsey Fire, with its huge size (14-mile fire front, 100,000 acres, the largest in Los Angeles County history), destroyed 1,600 total homes and structures with 488 homes destroyed in City limits, caused a complete communications black out with citywide power, cell phone and internet outages due to infrastructure being destroyed. Malibu has ramped up its efforts to be ready to address those challenges in a future catastrophic wildfire. 

The City expanded the public safety office into a City Department - The City added three part-time fire safety liaisons, and two full time public safety specialists, expanded funding, and secured grants to pay for community preparedness training, fire hazard tree removal and other programs. 

Three Fire Safety Liaisons - The City's Fire Safety Liaisons are all career firefighters with decades of experience and expertise in leading firefighting efforts in our region. They also have a variety of different specific expertise, such as fire behavior, wildland firefighting, and vegetation management. The Liaisons implement fire prevention programs such as home hardening assessments, hazard tree removal, and public education as well as monitor fire risk conditions and respond to incidents to serve as a liaison between the City and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. They also meet with HOAs, businesses, schools and other organizations to offer wildfire preparedness guidance. 

The City launched a free home wildfire hardening assessment service - Upon request, a Fire Safety Liaison will go to a Malibu residents’ home, lead them on visual inspection and make a checklist of things they can do to harden their homes against wildfire embers. Millions of burning embers can fly out more than two miles ahead of a wind driven wildfire and is a leading cause of homes burning down in wildfires. Simple, inexpensive things like clearing away flammable vegetation and material, like bushes and wood furniture from touching the house, putting steel mesh over attic vents. The City has conducted nearly 400 home wildfire hardening assessments. A survey of homeowners who participated in the City’s free program found that 80% of them had implemented the majority of the recommendations that the Fire Safety Liaisons had given them, and 23% implemented more than what was recommended.

The public safety specialists conduct community emergency preparedness education and training – Public Safety staff regularly provide preparedness workshops, as well as an public safety preparedness expo. They also train city staff on emergency operations and conduct annual Emergency Operations Center exercises. One Public Safety Specialist specializes in homelessness and works with the Sheriff’s Department on outreach and finding and removing homeless encampments in the forested hills and canyons, which are a dangerous fire hazard (dozens of small fires have started in homeless encampments). 

Fire Hazard Tree Removal Program – in 2021, the City got a state grant to fund a free Fire Hazard Tree Removal Program, where an arborist and the Fire Safety Liaisons identify and remove dead and dying trees for free from Malibu properties that are a hazard of catching fire or falling down. More than 500 hazardous trees have been removed through this program.

Zero Power Plan - During Power Outages - During the Woolsey Fire, cell phone towers and powerlines were destroyed, so we lost all power and cell phone service, and that created a serious and dangerous challenge in putting out emergency information to the community. The City developed a ZERO POWER PLAN: Five or more Emergency Supply and Information Stations may be set up at logical gathering places such as shopping centers, marked with flags. Sandwich boards may be used to post printed emergency information to keep people informed even when the power or cell phones are out. Recently staff conducted a demonstration and set up a station together with the Official Malibu CERT Team, which staffs the stations and has radio communications with the City. 

Zero Power Plan – Satellite communications & solar power for emergency supplies containers - The Malibu CERT Team outfitted two of the City’s seven emergency supply bins with satellite phone and internet capabilities, and has one mobile unit that can be deployed where it is needed.The bins, which are at various location across the City, are designed to serve as Points of Distribution and Emergency Information Stations during disasters. They are equipped with solar power, .  two-way radio and other communications equipment, laptops and printers. They will enable CERT and City staff to set up printed bulletin boards to provide information to the public during a communications blackout. 

Zero Power Plan– Outdoor Siren System - The City is considering a pilot program for a possible system of outdoor warning sirens that could be placed in strategic locations to warn the community about wildfire or any disaster. 

Zero Power Plan – Bullhorns and flashing lights for city vehicles - The City purchased a large number of bullhorns, flashing light bars and emergency vehicle identification magnets so that city staff members can assist the Sheriff’s Department with alerting residents when communications are down, and assist deputies with evacuations. 
Zero Power Plan – Radio repeaters - The City partnered with the Malibu CERT Team, which has some members that are experts in emergency radio use, to place a radio repeater antenna on top of Castro Peak, a high point in the Santa Monica Mountains, to greatly expand the reach of handheld radios so that public safety staff and CERT Team volunteers can communicate during disasters when power and cell phone services are out. The City provided 40 handheld radios for the CERT Team. 

Zero Power Plan – Changeable Message Signs - The City acquired three additional Changeable Message Signs (now has 6), which are placed at strategic locations on the main highway and canyons, to display emergency information, which run on batteries, and can be programmed with messages remotely. 

Zero Power Plan - Backup generators for traffic signals - In 2020, the City purchased 16 generators and partnered with Caltrans to install them at all of the signalized intersections on PCH in Malibu (excluding crosswalks and the Pier) to provide backup power for the traffic signals. They are to be used only to facilitate evacuations during wildfires, earthquakes or other disasters when there are widespread, long lasting power outages (not for PSPS outages or accidental power outages). At the City’s request, Caltrans also upgraded the backup batteries at all PCH traffic signals in Malibu, as most were outdated, so they provide longer backup power (4-6 hours).

Expanded Disaster Notification System database - City recently acquired an additional 9,000 cell phone numbers for our disaster notification system, like reverse 911, which we use during disasters and evacuations. Now we have the numbers for almost every cell phone in Malibu. The city tests the system with drills at least once a year.

City has access to use Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) - WEA is like an amber alert. The benefit is that it sends out messages to all cell phones in an given area, so it reaches the tens of thousands of visitors, employees and tourists that are in Malibu any given day, in addition to residents, with no subscription.  

CERT classes expanded – the City significantly increased the number of free Community Emergency Response Team or CERT classes offered each year. It teaches basic first aid, search and rescue and fire suppression so residents can be prepared to help themselves and their neighborhood. The City also increased the trainings it offers to include emergency preparedness for seniors. 

Increased other preparedness trainings offered for the public – Increased preparedness trainings for seniors and people with disabilities: first aid, and Public Safety Power Shutoff (power outage). 

Annual multi-Agency exercises – City staff host an annual exercise with L.A. County Fire, L.A. County Sheriff, CHP, L.A. County Public Works, Caltrans, Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), L.A. County Beaches and Harbors, Santa Monica Police, Ventura County Sheriff and the County Supervisor's office and other agencies. It is meant to enhance emergency response coordination and communication among the many agencies that work together during a wildfire impacting Malibu.  

Adopted a mass evacuation Plan and adopted the Countywide Zonehaven evacuation tool, maps and zones - In 2022, the City adopted LA County’s newly established official disaster response and evacuation zones and the new Genasis Protect online tool and app. The new zones in the Malibu area are the same as the City of Malibu’s Evacuation Zones that are part of the Mass Evacuation Plan that the City Council adopted in 2020 following a recommendation from the Malibu Disaster Council after the Woolsey Fire. 

The City developed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan - The plan, adopted in 2019, focuses on identifying and addressing local hazards, risks and vulnerabilities from wildfire, with two workshops and an online survey to get community input. It provides a roadmap of action items to help the community prevent, mitigate, respond to, and recover from wildfires. It may also help the City qualify for state and federal funding opportunities to ultimately implement the plan. 

Virtual Emergency Operations Center -  The City obtained and trains staff on using a remote, virtual Emergency Operations Center (EOC) system to enable the emergency operations staff to do work remotely during a disaster that would prevent staff from being able to all be in one location, such as a major earthquake, and to improve EOC operations. 

Beacon Boxes – Following recommendations after the Woolsey Fire to find ways to help out-of-area fire crews responding in Malibu, the City contracted to have 47 "Beacon Boxes" custom made and installed at strategic locations across the City. The weather-hardened boxes include printed maps and thumb drives with locations of fire hydrants, swimming pools, and other valuable highly localized information. As of August 2023, 30 of the Beacon Boxes have been installed. 

Emergency Resolution to Facilitate Removal of Homeless Encampments During Wildfire Season/Red Flag Conditions - The City declared a temporary local state of emergency on September 27, 2022, initiating a program for reducing the risk of wildfires associated with unpermitted and unregulated camping in City limits. The resolution enables the LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), LASD-Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) and the City to more quickly remove homeless encampments on public property that are identified as fire threats during wildfire season. As part of wildfire safety efforts, LASD and the City are prioritizing removing homeless encampments and unhoused people from the brush-covered hills and canyons of Malibu and placing them into emergency shelters. 

Grant-funded emergency supplies backpacks distributed to seniors in the community.

Free trainings on how to assess a structure for vulnerability to wildfire – In 2023, the City secured State grant funds to offer four free classes for community groups from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) on how to assess a home or building’s vulnerabilities to burning down in a wildfire and take steps to harden the structure from wildfire.