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County Firefighters to Cite Offenders : Homeowners Face Sunday Deadline to Remove Brush

Times Staff Writer

Fire Capt. Jon Galiher pulled his pickup-sized fire truck to a stop in Topanga Canyon and pointed to a newly built house perched on a hilltop 100 yards from the roadway.

It was a stylish, custom-made, stained-wood home with broad windows that framed the beauty of the valley below. Sturdy wooden decks and a matching brown fence helped blend the house into drying grass and 15-foot-high brush that covered the slope.

It blended together too nicely for Galiher, who has fought fires in Topanga Canyon for 15 years.

“That brush should be cleared out,” he said. “This area hasn’t burned in 26 years. If that hill catches fire, it will carry right up to the fence and deck and on into the house.”

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Galiher climbed back into his truck and made a note to return to the house with a citation book Sunday.

That is the day that the Los Angeles County Fire Department will begin enforcing brush clearance laws that require property owners to remove flammable brush and grass from within 100 feet of houses and other structures before the summer and fall fire season.

Handing Out Citations

In Ventura County and in the city of Los Angeles, officials already are handing out citations to property owners who failed to meet deadlines for brush-clearance, which passed in recent weeks.

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But fire officials say Topanga Canyon, which is monitored by Los Angeles County firefighters, has the potential for the most disastrous brush fires in the Los Angeles area this year.

The last major fire to devastate the canyon struck on New Year’s Day in 1959 and destroyed 66 homes. Since then, Topanga Canyon has undergone a population explosion as newcomers have sought to trade city life for a a more rural life style.

“That same fire today would take out 200 homes,” Galiher said. “People move up here looking for seclusion, for the habitat. The things they come here for are the things we have to look at from a professional perspective.”

To reduce the fire threat, county officials have taken extra steps this year to warn Topanga Canyon residents of the hazard. They have also mapped plans for a series of small, controlled fires to burn a firebreak across an undeveloped, rugged area at the north end of the canyon near Woodland Hills.

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Notified by Mail

Each of Topanga’s 1,800 homeowners was notified by mail a month ago that firefighters will begin issuing citations Sunday to property owners who fail to clear safety zones around their homes. Those who are cited and still refuse to comply will be hauled into court where they can be ordered to clear away their weeds and brush, fire officials say.

Last year, firefighters cited 150 Topanga Canyon property owners. About 30 of them were eventually taken to court and ordered to comply with the clearance law, officials said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim D. Hansen said landowners who do not comply can face fines of up to $500, although courts are generally satisfied if the brush is cleared.

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But some of the balky property owners are not forced to clean their lots until after the brush-fire season ends, said Battalion Chief James Daleo, head of the county Fire Department’s inspections section.

County officials plan to combat that stubbornness starting next year by hiring their own brush-removal crews to do the work when property owners won’t, Assistant Chief David Hanson said. Under the program, the cost of such work will be put on landowners’ property tax bills, he said.

Policies in Effect Elsewhere

Similar we’ll-do-it-if-you-don’t brush clearance policies are already in effect on unimproved vacant lots in Los Angeles County and on all parcels in Ventura County and in the city of Los Angeles.

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The Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office sent out 33,000 weed-abatement notices to owners of vacant lots in April, said Monroe Polk, the office’s deputy hazard abatement director.

Because his department hires tractor operators cheaply to plow weeds into the soil on flat lots, about 11,000 lot owners will decide to let the county clear them this year, Polk said, with cost of the work added to their fall tax bills.

Ventura County on April 18 sent out 16,000 notices advising landowners that they had until May 21 to clear 100-foot safety zones around their structures, said Bill Wright, vegetation officer for the county Fire Department.

Over the past five years, his department has ended up clearing an average of 1,356 lots yearly at a cost of $255 per lot, plus a $41 administrative fee, Wright said.

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This year, the administrative fee was raised to $155, which could lead to fewer property owners choosing to let the county handle the work, he said.

Most Dangerous Areas

Ventura County’s most dangerous brush buildups are in the Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Bell Canyon areas at the east end of the county, he said. Most landowners cooperate with the Fire Department, although some oppose the brush-clearance rules.

“One guy in the Westlake area almost called me a murderer when we asked him to clear 30 more feet on his property. He said he had a family of quail nesting in the brush,” Wright said. “I like quail. But we want a chance to protect houses.”

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Los Angeles city fire officials mailed notices April 1 to 120,000 owners of property in brushy areas, asking compliance with the 100-foot rule by June 1, according to Capt. Jim Haworth, who heads the city Fire Department’s brush abatement program.

A crew of 48 inspectors will check each of those parcels this month and probably cite about 9,000 property owners for non-compliance, Haworth said.

Have 15 Days to Act

Those who are cited have 15 days to clear their lots and have it inspected by their local fire company, he said. Those who still do not comply will be called for a conference at the city attorney’s office.

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After that, the city is allowed to send private contractors onto the property to do the work and then bill landowners for the cost, along with a $250 administrative fee. Last year, the city-contracted crews cleaned about 850 parcels, Haworth said.

“People who live on their property usually comply,” said one of Haworth’s inspectors, Fire Department Engineer John Parker. “I get positive feedback from people I deal with--amazingly, even from people I cite.”

Parker spoke as he steered a red-and-white Fire Department sedan down narrow Floramorgan Trail in Tujunga, an area that officials say is especially susceptible to brush fires.

Flagged Down by Resident

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He was flagged down by 84-year-old Robert Taylor, who has lived on Floramorgan Trail since 1938. Taylor asked Parker to inspect his weed-clearing work and sign an “OK” on his April 1 notice if it passed muster.

“I have two electric Weed Eaters and a gasoline one,” Taylor said. “I’ve been putting five or seven buckets of grass out for the trash man every week.”

Although Parker normally writes up landowners only when their property fails his inspection, he complied with Taylor’s request and signed the notice.

“You did beautiful work here. This will save your house, or give you a chance, if there’s a fire,” Parker said. Taylor beamed.

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