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The Fire Forecast

Bracing for a dry summer

Where most people see natural beauty, Drew Smith sees fuel and flames. He can’t enjoy a hike or a picnic without thinking about the moisture content of a fallen eucalyptus or the velocity of an easterly wind. “It’s a curse,” he says. Smith is a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, but his rank doesn’t capture his specialty. He’s the department’s lead fire-­behavior analyst, charged with understanding why, how, and when wildfires will burn through the region.

Smith is driving on the 101 freeway, which cuts through the Santa Monica Mountains, the 244-square-mile range that runs through Los Angeles County from the 405 freeway into Ventura County. He and his colleagues have another name for this area: the Malibu Fire Corridor. Consisting of neighborhoods like Pacific Palisades, Woodland Hills, and Topanga and cities like Malibu, Calabasas, and Thousand Oaks, it has a greater density of homes than any mountain range in the state. Over the past three decades, it’s been the site of nearly two dozen history-making infernos, among them the Kanan fire of 1978, the Topanga blaze of 1993, and the Springs fire of 2013.

Smith is 46 years old and slender, with an FM radio voice and a caffeine addiction that renders his off switch nonfunctional. He grew up in Newbury Park, just a few miles north of the Ventura County line, where his father was a fireman for 36 years before retiring as assistant fire chief. Smith began training with the Los Angeles County Fire Department before he graduated from high school.

Pulling to the side of a frontage road, he takes a slug of coffee, exposing a tattoo on his triceps that reads LACoFD, and hops out of his Chevy Silverado. He walks onto a piece of undeveloped private property — a narrow canyon that’s grassy and moderately sloped where he stands, but wider, dense with vegetation, and increasingly steep the farther it stretches from the blacktop. This swath, which he estimates to be 12 acres, hasn’t burned since the Kanan fire. It’s exactly the kind of fuel bed that’s primed to go up fast and mean. He yanks a fistful of wheat-colored annual grass from the dirt. “Normally this would be green through early summer. But it’s all dried out.” He points to a couple of scraggly oak trees. “Those need close to 100 gallons a day of groundwater. You can see they’re not getting what they need.” Squinting into the sun and taking in the topography, he says, “This is a one-stop shop, right here.”

Smith hikes farther away from the road to the point where the slope runs into a steep mountainside thick with laurel sumac, chaparral, and scrub oak, which would barely be navigable on hands and knees with a machete, let alone with 50 pounds of fire gear. Above the brush and squat trees, a couple of yuccas are in bloom, announcing the end of the rainy season. Just above them sits a house and, beyond it, a residential development that gives way to another and another and eventually to the Starbucks that Smith frequents.

The parched grasses are vulnerable, he says, adding that the taller the blades, the more air can travel through them, and the quicker a fire can spread. But it’s the big, mature vegetation that burns hot and wreaks havoc. Add a breeze, a gust, or a 90-mile-per-hour Santa Ana wind, and it burns that much faster. What’s more, fire defies gravity — it burns more rapidly going uphill than it does on a flat surface.

Among Smith’s long list of worries are “ember cast” and “spotting” — that’s fire-speak for the white-hot or flaming hunks of fuel that ascend with a smoke column, land as far as a mile away, and start another blaze. “It’s like leapfrog,” he says. Surveying the small canyon, he assesses how quickly a lit cigarette could cause a blaze fierce enough to incinerate the house on top of the hill. “Right now the temperature’s probably 78 degrees, relative humidity of 35, 38 percent, and we have a westerly, northwesterly wind of 2 to 4 miles per hour. The travel time to the top of the ridgeline where that house is — I’d say about 45 minutes to an hour. But if that fire starts spotting, it can potentially get up there faster.” If the house goes aflame, he says, there’s a good chance a fire would start leapfrogging down the block, where the process will be repeated.

Back in the truck, Smith drives past packs of spandex-clad cyclists toward a big intersection where the entrances to two developments face each other. One has a sign that says Las Brisas (The Breezes). The other reads Dos Vientos Ranch (Two Winds Ranch). Smith parks just up the hill, next to a few dozen acres of recently scorched earth, the result of the 2013 Springs fire, which burned west from the 101 freeway to the coast and back over the hills, singeing 24,000 acres — that’s 15 percent of the Santa Monicas — in 36 hours. He points out the line that bulldozers and hand crews had created to slow the movement of flames. The contrast is stark: dense, unburned growth on one side of the line; blackened stumps with two years’ worth of greenish vegetation on the other. Smith notes that, in the last hour and a half, the wind patterns in the area have changed and might shift two or three more times today. “We’re very good at what we do,” he says, “but there are a lot of variables. Sometimes it’s the fire’s time to win.”