Keegan Gibbs was watching the Woolsey fire across Malibu on CBS2 News when he saw his family home had burnt down. It was one of 1,500 structures destroyed by the forest fire three years ago. In the video footage, a reporter walked through thick clouds of smoke, and in the background was Gibbs’ family home. It was a total waste, just a few pieces of wood still burning. Three people died as they fled the largest in LA County history. But Gibbs didn’t let personal loss stop him from helping his community.
âI think that’s when it all changed for me,â Gibbs says. âYou feel really helpless right now because, you know: what could I have done differently? Why did this happen? ‘ So when it happened, I was really like, ‘Okay, what next?’ “
He didn’t know it at the time, but what he did next would lead to the creation of a potentially revolutionary new model for fighting forest fires. This new idea came directly from mistakes Gibbs, his neighbors, and the LA County Fire Department made during the Woolsey fire.
The morning after the fire passed through Point Dume, Gibbs returned to his neighborhood to find point fires still on. He and his friends were walking around with shovels or whatever they could find. And then, over the next two days, that ad hoc response evolved into a highly coordinated community-wide response.
Due to evacuation orders, Malibu was cut off from the outside world. Those who remained during the fire were now without water, electricity or food. So Gibbs’ group of friends helped coordinate supplies by boat to help those in need. When the Sheriff’s Department wouldn’t let them land, they got on their surfboards and rowed in the supplies.
They have set up a disaster relief center in the parking lot of Point Dume Elementary School. They prepared meals, comforted people who had lost their homes, checked the welfare of the elderly and continued to put out occasional fires started by the embers. They did everything ad hoc, and some of them were dangerous, like moving hundreds of gallons of gasoline during a forest fire with embers floating in the air.
“Was it the safest thing in the world? Maybe not, âsays Brent Woodworth, CEO of the Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation. But he was impressed with what Gibbs and his friends accomplished and saw the potential to turn this community response into something more secure and replicable in other places.
âIt is becoming very evident that if we can better train, educate and motivate people to take the appropriate steps both to prepare for and respond to dangerous events of all types, we will have a safer society,â he says.
Training volunteers and coordinating with local agencies are key factors in this new model of forest fire response that Woodworth, Gibbs and a few dozen of his Malibu neighbors have developed since the Woolsey fire. They call their approach âcommunity brigadesâ. Brigades are supposed to fill the resource gap left when firefighters are over-stretched.
Fighting arson is not new, but the community brigade program is different because it requires much less training, a shorter time commitment, and fewer physical demands. It also focuses specifically on forest fires and natural disasters rather than the more classic fires that save people from a single building.
The community brigade program leaves it to firefighting professionals and is rather designed to take advantage of resources already present in the community, such as local knowledge. It will provide volunteers with approximately 50 hours of training in forest fire behavior, safety and preparedness. Emphasis is also placed on communicating and learning about the Incident Command System that responders use to talk to each other during a crisis. Although the focus is on forest fires, they will also learn an âall hazardsâ approach that would allow them to reuse what they learn for any natural disaster.
So far, around 100 volunteers are participating in six neighborhood brigades. The community brigade pilot program is only waiting for approval from the LA County Fire Department to officially launch the program.
Anyone can sign up to volunteer, and there are roles for people who provide support and logistics, and for people who are physically able to do what is called “fire front tracking.” “. They won’t fight the fire front – that’s left to the professionals. Instead, Gibbs explains, they âclean up the community. Look for embers, look for combustible materials, seal everything.
Most burning houses catch fire from the embers after the fire front has passed. National defense is only part of the brigade’s tasks. They will also go door-to-door and help people evacuate, close their windows, clean brush, shut off water lines so that burst pipes do not drop the water pressure (which is very important) in a fire fight).
âPeople want to participate in protecting their own community,â says Woodworth. “It’s kind of human nature and we want to give them that chance.”
But there are some edifying stories when civilians are involved. For example, a long-running program in Australia called âStay and Defend or Leave Earlyâ (SDLE) meant that when a forest fire occurred, Australia did not require residents to evacuate. If residents wanted to protect their homes themselves, they were allowed to. But after 173 people died in the devastating fires of 2008, the deadliest yet in Australian history, that policy has been reconsidered by the government.
The question is: can community brigades make a version of âstay and defendâ that is not so risky? Can they also save more homes and lives?
âThere is no perfect answer to this,â says Mikke Pierson, a member of the Malibu City Council, who stayed to defend his own home and the homes of his neighbors during the Woolsey fire. In Malibu, some locals have a long tradition of staying during a forest fire. He adds, âBut probably the people who stay are going to stay anyway. So if they have any training on the equipment, hopefully that will make a difference.
This is an approach that worries some firefighters, who fear that residents will put their lives in danger and then require a dangerous rescue. Rick Mullen is the LA County Fire Captain of Engine 72 in Malibu, and while he says firefighters don’t want people to stay after evacuation orders are in place, he’s realistic enough to know that some people do.
âThe resilience of the neighborhood, in other words, the number of houses that have burned down, the biggest effect on that isn’t necessarily what the fire department is doing,â he says. âThis is really what residents do in a big, long equation. This includes things like hardening the house, making a plan, brushing and responding to wildfires.
Still, many in Malibu believe the brigades could move the needle in an ever-escalating state-wide conundrum. The fires are getting bigger and more destructive, but there aren’t enough public resources to save every home.
âWe live in a fireplace. And if you expect that you won’t end up getting burned, then you’d be wrong, âGibbs said, quoting a friend. “Do you live in a fireplace?” Learn to live by the fire.
This feature was adapted from the Sandcastles podcast, which chronicles how a group of surfers – Gibbs included – pioneered this new model of community squad. It falls in December 2021. Find out on Wavemakermedia.org.