There has been a strange silence in the wake of the devasting Westwood fire six weeks ago.
The official determination of the $25-million blaze on Wilshire Boulevard and in nearby neighborhoods has been listed as arson. But whatever the cause, the failure to provide an assessment of the emergency response to the predawn fire, which damaged 15 luxury condominium units and private homes, is disturbing.
Are city officials uneasy over the fact that a comparable fire during rush hour would probably have resulted in many deaths?
Public safety demands that we learn from this fire. The lessons involve the effect of overdevelopment on emergency-response operations, problems of dispatching and deploying firefighting equipment, the menace of shake roofs and the public's gross ignorance of what to do in case of large fire dangers.
For years, Friends of Westwood and community groups in congested areas such as Beverly/La Cienega and the San Fernando Valley communities of Sherman Oaks and Encino have raised the issue of the effect of overdevelopment on emergency response.
Starting with the effort to put a moratorium on Wilshire Corridor development in 1984, we have been asking the City of Los Angeles just how long it would take emergency vehicles to reach a community that already suffers gridlock traffic conditions and is targeted for even more development. The fact that we never received an answer to this fundamental question should chill the heart of every person living in a gridlocked area. Folks, we're on our own.
Los Angeles must include emergency-response calculations in the General Plan. In plain English, this means that we must know how long it will take emergency personnel to reach a given community, and how residents can be evacuated--whatever the time of day--in case of fire or earthquake. The City Council must consider land use to be more than a matter of square footage. Whether you are an apartment renter, a homeowner or the developer of a high-rise tower, the impact of overdevelopment on public safety should worry you.
The city's dispatching system must also be improved. During the Westwood fire, trucks and crews were late in getting to secondary blazes nearby. During a major earthquake, fires will also erupt randomly and leapfrog over neighborhoods.
Westwood resident Bill O'Reilly gives just one example. Every time he called for help on Dec. 23, the fire dispatcher assured him that "we are on the scene." But O'Reilly responded in anger and shock, "you are not on the scene--our neighbors' homes are burning on Holmby Avenue!" Although the largest number of firefighters ever mobilized in the history of the city were just three blocks away, O'Reilly and his wife Muriel had to watch their neighbors' homes burn. Help didn't arrive for 45 minutes. We must do better.
And while we're at it, we must get rid of shake roofs. It's not just the shake manufacturers who pretend that this roofing material is safe. People with shake roofs do not want to alter the appearance of their beloved homes or spend the money on a new roof. But think of how a fire alters the appearance of a home while destroying the possessions of a lifetime. Drive through Westwood and see for yourself that shake roofs were the culprit in spreading this fire. Like popcorn, shake cinders exploded and landed on other shake roofs.
Perhaps the most important lesson, however, is that we must start thinking about how to react during an emergency. There are things individuals can do before the Fire Department reaches us. Indeed, neighbors were the first line of defense in the Westwood fire. Joe Doerr's home on Holmby was saved because two women fleeing from the fire on Ashton Avenue saw a spark land on Doerr's shake roof. The women pounded on his door, rousing Doerr from bed. Then Doerr and his neighbor, David Hekmat, hosed the roof and put out the fire.
While we have seen many brochures on earthquakes, few of us know about fire preparedness. Did you know, for example, that the Fire Department recommends that homeowners stencil their house numbers on their roofs, so helicopter pilots can track a fire? Or that buckets filled with dirt or sand should be placed in strategic places on the roof? Do you have goggles, heavy-duty gloves and boots, items that are useful for making your way out of a burning structure? Is there an extra garden hose in case others melt? Are you aware that if there is time before evacuating, you should turn all the lights on and fill bathtubs, sinks and washing machines with water?
The San Francisco Bay Area earthquake and the the Westwood fire both brought home the point that disaster can and will strike urban areas of California. Both revealed flaws in our emergency response procedures. How well we respond the next time could make the difference.