The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board Tuesday night authorized the county and city fire departments to conduct a prescribed burn on conservancy property above Tarzana to reduce the wildfire hazard in the Topanga Canyon area.
The panel approved the burn on its Mulholland Crest tract by a 6-0 vote, despite the concern of Executive Director Joe Edmiston that the conservancy could be blamed if the fire got out of control and damaged nearby homes.
Fire Capt. Scott Franklin, who runs the county's prescribed burn program, said the burning will be done in the spring on the 380-acre conservancy parcel and on neighboring tracts along Mulholland Drive where the "fuel load" is heavy. Franklin said the wildfire hazard is extreme, likening the overgrown chaparral to a "gun barrel" pointing at Topanga-area residents.
A prescribed burn is designed to thin highly burnable vegetation under favorable weather conditions to reduce the risk of a major fire during Santa Ana winds.
In arguing for the burn, Warren Jessup, a member of the conservancy board's advisory committee, said the state agency would place itself "right in the line of fire, of criticism," if it were to refuse the request and a catastrophic later fire raked the area.
Dave Brown, another advisory committee member, argued that prescribed burning must be accompanied by proper land-use controls. Brown said the county's Regional Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors still allow construction of homes on ridges thick with chaparral.
He said county fire officials should "speak out more strongly" on the need to put "public safety above the interests of individual subdividers."
Three Topanga-area residents also spoke in favor of the burn, including Charles Ferris, who told the board: "The house you save may be mine."
Over the next three years, city and county firefighters intend to burn specific areas within a nearly 5,000-acre expanse of rugged mountain country south of Mulholland Drive, mostly within Topanga State Park.
Spotless Safety Record
The county has promoted prescribed burning since 1980, when the state agreed to provide up to $6 million worth of insurance per fire for any damage resulting from a burn.
Since then, Franklin said, the county has had a virtually spotless safety record, torching about 12,000 acres without destroying a single home.