As wildfire season approaches in Southern California, Palos Verdes Peninsula has already reported at least four brush fires break out this month.

Though extinguished quickly and causing limited damage to structures, the small fires have caused Peninsula cities, Southern California Edison and Los Angeles County Fire Department to step up readiness plans.

Those plans include a combination of what officials call “hardening” of electrical equipment, removal of dry brush from the Peninsula’s expansive open spaces and spreading word about a “Ready, Set, Go” communication plan to residents.

The most recent fire burned several acres just north of Trump National Golf Course in Rancho Palos Verdes on July 8.

Multiple fires break out every year on the Palos Verdes Peninsula — considered a Tier 2 or elevated fire-threat area — but thanks to coordination of the four Pensinsula cities with Los Angeles County Fire, most brush fires are small and put out within a short period, said Haralson.

Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Ara Mihranian said first responders were able to get to the July 8 fire quickly.

“From my office window I saw fire trucks coming from Palos Verdes Estates, from Rolling Hills Estates, they were all making their way towards the incident and I heard helicopters maneuvers all within minutes,” Mihranian said. “It just tells you how prepared the city and our first responders are for these incidents.”

Firefighters also quickly extinguished small fires on July 1, 4 and 5.

On July 1, a small quarter-acre brush fire in Rancho Palos Verdes may have been caused by a smoke flare, said Haralson. And, the fire on Fourth of July, caused moderate damage to a home in Rolling Hills Estates when used fireworks were discarded in a trash can full of dry grass, he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of careless human causes for some of these fires,” said Haralson.

Indeed, the most destructive brush fire in the South Bay was sparked by two youths with illegal firecrackers. But that was decades ago in June 1973. That fire, in Rolling Hills, destroyed 12 homes and burned more than 900 acres.

More recently, in the three years from 2017 to 2019, firefighters have been dispatched a total of 19 times to the Peninsula for brush fires, according to LA County Fire Computer Aided Dispatch.

The last big fire

It’s been more than 10 years since a brush fire on the peninsula grew large enough to threaten homes.

That fire, on Aug. 27, 2009, burned 235 acres and was of unknown origin according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention website. The fire, which burned for two days, caused minor damage to six Rolling Hills homes and forced 1,200 people to evacuate. And, it knocked out power to 3,000 customers.

“As far as the cause, it was never determined,” remembered Carolynn Petru, who was then the deputy city manager of Rancho Palos Verdes and is currently the board president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.

Petru remembered the prevailing thought was the 2009 fire was caused by some kind of “electrical failure.” And, in a statement from the city of Rolling Hills addressing current efforts at fire prevention, states though the exact cause was unknown, it “is thought to have been caused by an electrical problem at a utility pole in the area.”

And that’s where the infrastructure “hardening” comes in.

Southern California Edison has replaced 172 electric poles on the Peninsula over the last two years, according to David Song, public information officer.

Song said SCE has also cleared vegetation in about 285 locations on the Peninsula and has installed 160 high definition cameras and 700 weather monitoring stations that give forecasts around the clock.

“This provides us a very detailed snapshot of weather conditions,” Song said. “That does help us decide what areas might be high risk for wildfires in a given time window.”

Open space cause for concern

Officials worry about the 1,600 acres of open space encompassed in the Palos Verdes Land Conservancy.

PVPLC, along with the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, does its part by clearing vegetation that could be fuel for fires, including the use of goats to munch through invasive plants such as mustard and acacia weeds.

When it comes to fuel modification, said Petru, it is a delicate balance.

“The city has the responsibility and the right to do brush clearance in areas adjacent to homes and around utility structures,” said Petru, “but they have to balance where it does not compromise the habitat value of the nature preserve.”

Individual cities on the hill also do their parts when it comes to brush clearance.

James O’Neill, Rancho Palos Verdes’ project manager in the Public Works Department, said the city is responsible for performing fuel modification on approximately 235 acres, which are performed through contracted vendors. Approximately 110 acres are performed by goat herds, 100 acres through manned crews with trimmers and 25 by County of Los Angeles vendors.

According to a May 2019 city staff report, Palos Verdes Estates was responsible to remove nearly 220 acres of weed and brush in 2019 to meet LA County fire code requirements.

Ken Rukavina, the former Palos Verdes Estates director of community development and public works/city engineer who just took over as Rancho Palos Verdes’ Director of Community Development, said last month that the fire safety abatement contractor stared work in PVE on June 15 of this year, and is expected to be completed in mid July.

Rukavina said the biggest factor that gives resident’s concern is the area’s natural open space.

“We have all the canyons that have a lot of brush and a lot of trees in it,” Rukavina said in June. “Then because of the drought that we had, not so much more recently, a few years ago, there is still dead wood in the Parkland area.”

Teaching preparedness

To protect homes and other structures, Pensinsula residents need to learn to “harden” their neighborhoods against the threat of wildfires, according to a May 2020 presentation by Rancho Palos Verdes Emergency Preparedness Committee. 

Some of the recommendations:

  • Maintain a 30-feet brush clearance from most homes;
  • Maintain a 200-foot brush clearance from homes atop slopes in open spaces;
  • Replace highly flammable trees such as pines and palms; and
  • Replace wood shingle roofs.

These recommendations follow LA County Fire’s  “Ready! Set! Go!” public education program.

“It’s important that the homeowners are aware of what the fire department is asking them to do to be safe,” said Los Angeles Country Fire Department Battalion Chief Jason Robertson.

Having an evacuation plan should also be a priority for residents, Robertson said. That includes an emergency supply kit, medications, cash and contact numbers, he said.

With wild fires, Robertson said, people often stay in their homes until the last minute. Then, it can be too late, he said.

“What happens when you think that, and your neighbors think that and you all decide at the same time to leave, it causes traffic jams,” Robertson said.

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