MALIBU, Calif. — When longtime Malibu resident Carey Peck first heard about the Woolsey fire in early November of 2018, he was out celebrating his 30th anniversary with his wife, Lita Albuquerque. The flames were about 15 miles away near the 101 freeway.
“We weren’t concerned,” he said. “We’ve lived up here for years, and we’ve had fire inside of the house and we’ve had to defend friend’s houses.”
The blaze reached Malibu so fast, however, that Peck says Pacific Coast Highway was shut down before they could even decide whether or not to go home. Peck says his entire home burned to the ground, including his wife’s art studio, all of her work and irreplaceable family mementos.
Peck says he was diligent in clearing brush around his home.
“There was clear space around the house and the trees were cleared from above the house, but the winds were 70 miles an hour that day,” he said. “The fire just ran through the trees that there were and of course, there were 43 extra trees and it just ran through the tree tops.”
Two and a half years later, Peck is still rebuilding. It’s been a long, frustrating process, and, with another fire season coming up, he’s worried.
“I can’t think of a fire without feeling dread and some of the old feeling coming back,” he said.
More than 1,800 fires have burned across California already, surpassing last year’s pace, according to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. To help protect high-risk communities, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed a $1 billion wildfire prevention plan that puts over $500 million towards vegetation management in forests, such as logging.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis & history at Pomona College, says the plan is crucial, but focusing on clearing forests shouldn’t be the priority for spending. He points to the Camp Fire in Northern California several years ago.
“They had a huge fire ten years prior to that. They did a lot of logging in between and they had that massive fire in 2018 and it burned again last summer,” Miller said. “So clearly mechanical removal of trees and brush and the like, doesn’t really work.”
Miller says, instead, putting more funds towards clearing defensible space in communities would help save lives, especially in areas like Malibu, where the Woolsey fire was wind-driven.
“It gives them a fighting chance to get away from such fires, not necessarily to save their buildings and really what are we worried about?” he said. “Property is property. Human life is a totally different thing and I would much prefer to save people.”
Peck says, in the meantime, he’s also focused on hardening his home against the next blaze.
“The new house is going to be plaster on the outside, metal windows, glass frames,” he said. “So I am not saying you can’t burn down our house, but it’s going to be clearer and it’s going to a much tougher structure.”