Supervisors Fume Over Stalled Plan for Firebreak

Times Staff Writer

Doing a slow burn of their own, Los Angeles County supervisors this week demanded an end to haggling between two state agencies that is blocking a controlled brush-burning project in Topanga Canyon.

County fire officials, working for the state Department of Forestry, had planned to burn 200 acres at the southern edge of Topanga State Park to create a firebreak in 25-year-old brush in order to protect houses downwind in Pacific Palisades.

But the project was canceled two weeks ago when a dispute arose between the Department of Forestry, which oversees preventive burns, and the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the land.

Forestry officials said parks administrators did not have the required environmental impact report. Parks officials said they would not sign a waiver, demanded by the forestry administrators, releasing the Forestry Department from responsibility in case the fire flares out of control and damages adjoining property.

'In Jeopardy'

"It was a matter of complete bureaucratic bungling," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Scott Franklin, head of the department's prescribed burn program. "The Palisades area really is in jeopardy because of this."

In response, county supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to call on state Resources Agency Secretary Gordon K. Van Vleck, whose agency oversees the Forestry and the Parks departments, to intervene.

"It's inconceivable that two agencies will put their petty disagreements ahead of the welfare of residents," said Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who brought the issue before the board.

Van Vleck was unavailable for comment, but a Resources Agency spokesman in Sacramento said Forestry Director Gerald L. Partain and Parks Director William S. Briner would be called in to resolve the dispute.

Partain said the central argument is over the environmental report. He said forestry officials rely on a blanket environmental report that they drew up to cover most controlled burns. However, he said, parks officials asked several years ago to have controlled burns on parkland excluded from the Forestry Department's report to allow them to prepare their own environmental assessment.

Since no environmental assessment applies from either department, the burning cannot be approved, he said.

Briner could not be reached for comment. Other parks administrators said the waiver issue--not the environmental statement--was the main obstacle.

Bud Getty, chief of the Santa Monica Mountains region for the parks department, said parks officials issued a public notice last year that meets environmental review requirements.

"They could come in tonight and do the prescribed burning if they drop the hold-harmless requirement," Getty said. "We're all in favor of controlled burns."

Reason for Balking

State parks ecologist William Tippits said parks officials balked at the waiver because "it would be hard for our staff to swallow being responsible for a fire we have no control over."

Franklin said the liability question is pointless. "Parks and Forestry are both state agencies. If there's an escaped fire, we'll all be sued," he said.

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