‘FlameMapper’ simulations may save your home

The pair spoke on Saturday, June 13 at the Malibu Library about their latest findings as guests of the Second Saturday Series of the Malibu Democratic Club. 

Shafer, who retired after 43 years with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, has two master’s degrees and is a longtime Malibu resident. He has extensively studied the wildfires of the Santa Monica Mountains from 1900 to today.

“Virtually every stick between the 101 and the Pacific Ocean has burned at least once or twice in the last 50 years,” Shafer said. “Some areas have burned six or seven times.”

Local wildfires tend to start at or near the 101 Freeway and strong Santa Ana wind conditions drive the flames toward the coast. FlameMapper software incorporates data from the burn paths of every major wildfire in the last 115 years, including many variables, and is now able to simulate the probable paths and speed a fire could take, based on location, wind, humidity, etc.

In detailed studies of the most common paths that fires have taken through the mountains over the years, Shafer noticed something interesting. “I noticed that oak trees next to a structure protected that structure,” he said.

He began building computer simulations of oak tree plantings at various areas on fire paths. The results showed that “the spread of the fire is vastly reduced by oak trees that have the understory (flammable plants growing underneath the tree) removed.”

Shafer noticed while running simulations of past fires that came down Malibu Canyon that there is a narrow “choke point” or “corridor” near Piuma and Malibu Canyon roads that a fire beginning at the 101 has to get through in order to make it all the way into Malibu. He feels that if oak trees were planted at that particular site, it would stop fires on that route from getting into Malibu.

“The Malibu Canyon Corridor has more burnovers than any other place in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Shafer observed. He points out that the past two big fires in that area have gone around Monte Nido — a neighborhood heavily wooded with large oak trees.

“Natural riparian areas (wooded areas next to stream banks) inhibit wildfire spread,” Shafer said. And it’s not just oak trees — he says willow, bay laurel and California sycamore trees also have the same effect. “If you plant riparian areas on the simulator, they have fire-resistant qualities that haven’t been taken advantage of.”

Shafer has also noticed that areas in the Santa Monica Mountains that used to have riparian areas that have since been removed now burn much more readily. “We need to put nature back where it was to prevent fires from spreading to larger areas,” he said.

Part of the FlameMapper solution, Shafer feels, could be building simulator maps for neighborhoods showing the best locations for planting trees or riparian areas as “containment lines” to prevent the spread of fires. He’d also like the City of Malibu to look at points outside the city limits, where plantings would help prevent fires from coming into the city. “The city should be building a fire protection plan for the Civic Center area,” he said.

Shafer emphasized that FlameMapper is on the leading edge of wildfire research in the U.S. “Most research is done by the U.S. government, and they’re only concerned with trees. Very little research is being done on chaparral areas.”

Several members of the audience, including local Dorothy Reik, were so impressed with Shafer’s research, they now plan to work with Broussard on putting together a presentation for Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, since tree planting projects in the Santa Monica Mountains would fall under her jurisdiction.

Malibu’s Big Rock neighborhood has been one of the early adopters of using FlameMapper as a fire prevention tool. Al Broussard is President of the HOA there and his son, Shea, is co-founder and engineer of FlameMapper. The Boussard family’s house burned down in the 1993 Topanga fire.

Additional information and a number of publicly accessible fire maps are available at flamemapper.com.