Wildfires are larger, more frequent, and more ferocious—so be prepared.
By Robert Kerbeck
If you live in California, the odds are unfortunately all too good that you’ve had a recent experience with a wildfire. Perhaps a town near you burned. Or you know someone whose town burned. Maybe you just smelled the smoke from a wildfire in the vicinity or noticed the haziness of the sky from the toxic soot in the air. Or perhaps you’re like me and you actually fought a wildfire to save your home, a category of folk that is no longer as uncommon as it should be.
My family and I fought the 2018 Woolsey Fire to save our home while 17 of 19 houses nearby burned to the ground. And in surrounding Malibu Park—an equestrian-friendly neighborhood in the hills above Zuma Beach—out of approximately 270 homes, close to 200 were destroyed. The following lists are based on what I learned from that experience and the hundreds of interviews I did for my book, Malibu Burning: The Real Story Behind LA’s Most Devastating Wildfire. These lists are not intended as a recommendation for anyone else to “stay and defend,” which is a serious decision with potentially grave consequences. Indeed, if you follow the steps I outline below, you won’t have to stay behind because you’ll have prepared your home to give it the best chance of survival.
• Clear your brush. Let me repeat. Clear. Your. Brush. With our current drought, dry brush is just one ember away from igniting and potentially causing a major wildfire.
• Remove flammable trees like pine, eucalyptus, and palm, which easily catch fire and can also spread dangerous embers over great distances. Los Angeles County Fire Chief Vince Pena told me embers from a eucalyptus tree can travel over 20 miles.
• Set up a buffer zone around all structures on your property. I suggest you make this 10 feet or even 20 or 30, but that can be a tall order for some homeowners. At a minimum, create a five-foot zone in which nothing is prone to easy ignition. No woodchips in the garden, no wooden chairs on your deck, no wooden flowerboxes—are you seeing a motif here? Woodpiles should be even further, at least 30 feet from structures. Bottom line, no wood anywhere near your home!
• Install ember-resistant vents. One of the main ways homes burn is from embers getting inside the house. Ember-resistant vents make this much less likely to happen.
• Keep gutters clear of plant debris. One ember can set this debris on fire.
• Avoid wood fencing and gates, especially near the house.
• Use fire-retardant materials when constructing decks or any other type of structure near your home.
• Move all outdoor furniture, most of which is flammable, either far from structures or inside the home.
• Move outside barbecues far from structures or inside the garage.
• Remove any combustible materials from porches and decks: door mats, newspapers, wicker baskets, etc.
• Place wet, rolled-up towels under all doors to prevent embers from sneaking into the home, burning it from the inside out.
• Consider buying a system to “gel” your home in advance of a wildfire. We used a gas-powered fire pump (since power will be out) and the water from our hot tub (since water may be out too) to spray a fire retardant, Phos-Chek, on our home and surrounding property. Our house is a Victorian, so it’s all wood: wood decks, wood balconies, wood trim. If any home should have burned, it was ours. We strongly believe gelling our home saved it. It takes about an hour to do and is easily power-washed off.
I hope you follow the steps above. They may just save your home and everything you own. In addition, I can also offer some advice based on what items I found essential when facing down the Woolsey fire, and the lessons I learned for the future.
• Portable gas powered fire pump with extra can of gas
• Independent water source (our hot tub)
• 150 feet of 1 ½ line fire hose
• Specialized wrench to access the fire hydrant on our street
• Plastic fire hose nozzle (see below)
• Phos-Chek foam flame retardant (five-gallon jug)
• Foam applicator kit with jug to mix fire retardant with water to apply to our home
• Walkie-talkies, spare batteries
• Transistor radio, spare batteries (news was hard to come by since the power was out for days)
• Flashlights, spare batteries
• Heavy boots
• Thick gloves
• Basic N95 breathing masks (found in most hardware stores)
• Jeans and long-sleeve cotton or wool shirts
• Head protection
• First aid kit
• Brass fire hose nozzle (Plastic can break if dropped.)
• Backup set of fire hoses since hoses can get burn holes from embers
• Respirator-type masks (Unlike N95 masks, which are disposable, half-face and full-face respirators offer a tight-fitting, flexible facepiece with replaceable filter cartridges and provide better protection.)
• Headlamp (and extra batteries)
• Firefighter brushland suits (For all protective equipment and clothing listed, there should be a complete set for each person.)
• Wet mops to dampen and “whack out” spot fires (the least expensive item on this list, so buy a couple)
• Metal trash cans to place around your home and fill with water when a fire threatens in order to battle spot fires (Bonus tip: Store all your fire gear inside the trash cans. Use the lids to prevent rodents from getting inside.)
• Heavy-duty garden hoses with brass fittings (To have multiple ways to fight a fire. I’d keep at least one unused and only for emergencies.)
• Heavy-duty pistol grip spray nozzles for garden hoses (Again, I’d keep at least one for emergencies only.)
• Ladder to access your roof (Good idea to have two as the heat from a fire can melt ladders. I’d have one wood and one fiberglass.)
• Food, water, and medicines for a week (store extra because you will have guests)
In addition to Malibu Burning: The Real Story Behind LA’s Most Devastating Wildfire, which Robert Kerbeck published in 2019, the author has a new memoir about his career as a corporate spy, RUSE: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street, published by Steerforth Press/Penguin Random House.