By JENNIKA INGRAM | Reporter
In the midst of a break in wildfire season, the Pacific Palisades Historical Society presented a free program to the community on Wednesday, February 26, covering “100 Years of Wildfires.”
PPHS’ reservation list was full as people streamed into Pierson Playhouse to hear a presentation by guest speakers Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geographical Survey and Pulitzer Prize-winning fire reporter Bettina Boxall from the LA Times.
The two shared an informed conversation about the history of wildfires in the California region—particularly wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains region.
“We’re seeing a change in California in fire issues since the year 2000,” Keeley explained. “There’s been a doubling of the amount of area burned relative to the prior two decades.”
In most cases, land can recover very quickly from fires. In fact, shrubs such as the California lilac are fire-dependent and triggered to germinate by fire, Keeley shared.
“Within a couple of years after the fires, most of these chaparral sites are well on their way on their way to recovery, and so fire per se is not a problem for these ecosystems,” Keeley said.
However, the increased frequency of fires is causing problems, he added.
“Historically, we believe that in the Santa Monica Mountains, fire probably burned to the order of 30- to 130-year intervals and the chaparral’s very resilient to that frequency,” Keeley shared.
When you get three fires in 12 years, the land loses its native species and is left with exotic grasslands, Keeley explained, which has a lot of impact on natural resources.
“It changes the conservation value of these landscapes,” Keeley said. “For one thing, the original plants are only flammable six months out of the year, whereas the exotic plants are flammable 12 months out of the year, so a lot of changes happen when we increase fire frequency.”
Keeley talked about wind-dominated fires and explained how the speed of the Santa Ana winds is a problem.
“For example, the wind-driven fire that consumed the town of Paradise, from the time it ignited to the time it hit Paradise, it was an hour and a half,” Keeley said.
In terms of numbers, we have many more fires in this part of the state, Keeley shared about Southern California.
“Here, 99% of our fires are started by people,” Keeley added.
As the room opened up for discussion, the topic of embers causing house fires brought questions.
“What happens is that houses are not catching fire from a flame front, they are catching fire from embers,” Boxall said.
“The need for home ‘hardening’ is getting more and more attention,” Boxall continued. “Making sure that you do not just have a good roof, but that you enclose your eaves.”
Boxall warned attic vents are a classic way an ember can get into a home.
“I interviewed someone in Paradise—this family had done everything right,” Boxall said, “but they had not put in an ember-resistant vent, and they were watching their house as the embers went into their vent and caught fire.”
Attendees wanted to know the best trees to have on their property.
“One of the best trees is evergreen oaks because they have enough moisture in their foliage that you can’t get them to ignite with embers,” Keeley shared.
Author of “Malibu Burning” Robert Kerbeck, who battled the Woolsey fire in 2018 to save his home, attended the event and added his knowledge to the discussion.
Kerbeck encouraged homeowners to do simple things to increase their homes’ chances of survival, including clearing foliage or trees near powerlines.
The evening’s moderator, Palisadian Anthea Raymond, had to close out the questions due to the thriving, lively discussion.
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