The Wise Man of the Mountains : The Memory of Fire is So Strong in Gary Nelson That He Can See the Seeds of It in Every Season. His Passion Has Made Him the One to Call When The Wind Rises and The Hills Birn.

Patrick Goldstein's last article for the magazine was a profile of former USC basketball coach George Raveling

For just a few million dollars, this could have been your dream house, high on a secluded ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains, with a dazzling view of the Simi Hills and Los Padres National Forest. A tile pathway meanders through the back yard, following a series of wading ponds down to a lap pool and sauna complex. Outside the living room--or maybe it was the master bedroom--you can see the metal supports for a long wooden deck, the perfect place to lounge with a drink in your hand and watch the sun slip below the horizon.

Today, all that’s left of this showpiece home is the spectacular view. When Gary Nelson and I turn off Stunt Road, looking for a vantage point to see across the mountains, we’re already in the driveway before we realize that the wreckage before us--cracked floor tiles, graffiti-laden concrete foundation and charred wooden steps--is the last vestige of a home incinerated by the November, 1993, Old Topanga fire.

Nelson pokes around the ruins, surveying the surrounding hills. “If I was a fireman and the fire was coming at this house, I would’ve told the guy to get out of here,” he says, squinting into the sun. “No one could’ve saved this place.”


That’s expert opinion. With 38 years of experience, giving him the most seniority of any county firefighter, Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Gary Nelson is the Wise Man of Wildfire. At 55, he’s been fighting brush fires since he was a teen-age swamper, walking in front of a bulldozer to make sure the operator didn’t drive off a cliff. Nelson has been in the field for nearly every major firestorm of the past four decades, from the Bel-Air blaze of 1961 to the 1978 Kanan fire to the 1982 Dayton Canyon fire. He was even flown out to Yellowstone National Park during the 1988 fires there to help train Marine Corps troops in firefighting techniques.

“When your skin’s burning and you’re not getting any air in your lungs, it takes a special kind of guy to get you to go back into a building that everyone else is running out of,” says county Fire Capt. Mark Viles, who worked under Nelson as a young fire captain. “It’s not an easy leadership skill to develop, but Gary has it. The grunt firemen in the field would go to any length for him.”

Nelson’s depth of experience proved invaluable during the catastrophic 1993 firestorm. Over a period of nine days, 22 separate wildfires raged from Laguna Beach to Ventura County, burning nearly 200,000 acres and causing almost $1 billion in damage. One of the worst blazes erupted on a Mt. Calabasas ridge, sweeping south through the Santa Monica Mountains to the ocean, killing three, destroying 355 homes and burning 16,516 acres of land. Working the fire’s left flank, Nelson was a key general in the desperate fight to keep the hellbent blaze from jumping Topanga Canyon Boulevard and roaring down into Pacific Palisades, burning up hundreds of expensive homes in its way.

Even though it’s the rainy season now, when Nelson’s firefighters are busy plucking kids out of a storm-swollen river or cleaning up a hazardous material spill on the Golden State Freeway, fire is never far from Nelson’s mind. The land that burns during a November wildfire is a prime candidate for mudslide during a January deluge. With each new accumulation of rainfall the cycle begins again, making it more likely that this fall, after six months of summer drought, there will be tons of tinder-dry brush and foliage to burn.

Exploring the Santa Monicas with Nelson is like taking a practice run on a treacherous slalom course with a world-class downhill skier. Having spent a five-year tour of duty here in the late 1980s, Nelson has trained his eyes to spot peculiarities day hikers never see, from the canyon slopes most likely to burn, to the roads with enough turning room for a bulky fire engine.

Looking north, he retraces the Old Topanga fire’s course, half a mile wide and spreading fast as it incinerated this unlucky dream house. It’s instantly obvious to Nelson what sparked the home’s fiery demise: an innocent-looking pair of scorched pine trees. Still alive, their limbs are dotted with pine cones. “He had pretty good brush clearance, up to 200 feet, which is what we like,” Nelson says. “But I would’ve cut down those pine trees. Their tiny little needles ignite real easily.” Propelled by a windblown fire, pine needle embers fly through the air like a squadron of fireflies. “If there’s an open window--one that’s been blown out by 50-m.p.h. winds--those embers will fly right in and burn your house down.”


Before leaving, we take a last look at the premises. The devastation is so complete that you feel as if you’ve discovered a half-excavated archeological dig in the splintered clay tiles.

“This was must’ve been a beautiful house,” Nelson says, his voice dry and cool like a martini. “I bet he had enough money to cut those pine trees down.”

If you live in the city, take the time someday to hop on the freeway--any freeway will do--and drive away from the manicured lawns, the bright blush of bougainvillea. As you leave the urban landscape behind, the terrain undergoes an abrupt transformation, reverting to its natural state, a knotted, tinder-dry assortment of matted brown grass, tumbleweed, yucca and chaparral.

This is Southern California’s native Mediterranean landscape. Nourished by the winter rains, it looks lush and green. But by fall it’s brittle and combustible. Come peak fire season, which stretches from early September through Christmas, when you take a handful of dry weed and snap it in two, it’ll crackle like kindling wood. Perhaps that’s why Gary Nelson has a particular term for this carpet of brush and weed. He calls it “fuel.”

One of 14 assistant chiefs, Nelson heads Division 3, the largest and most rural of L.A. County’s eight fire divisions. Bordered to the south by the 118 and 210 freeways, north by the Kern County line and east by Pinon Hills, Division 3 has 25 fire stations, with about 300 firefighters and officers under Nelson’s command. His home base is Fire Station No. 73 in Santa Clarita, on the northern edge of Los Angeles County. It consists of a low-slung series of buildings with a three-firetruck garage. During fire season, a huge red bulldozer sits on top of a flatbed truck, ready to be towed into action. Behind the garage is the chief’s modest office, decorated with photos of firefighters in battle. On one wall is Nelson’s favorite fire-strategy teaching aid--a blackboard.

Nelson grew up in Santa Clarita, the son of a firefighter who rode a motorcycle through the hills, using wet gunnysacks to beat down grass fires. It’s in the blood now--Nelson’s two eldest sons are studying to be firefighters. His mother still lives behind the fire station--he brings her lunch from her favorite Taco Bell every week.

“Gary is a firefighter’s firefighter,” says John Hawkins, division chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Every place he touches down is a success. Go to any firehouse in the basin, and if you ask a rank ‘n’ file fireman about Gary Nelson, they’ll say--’Nelson, he’s a good one.’ ”

Even today, with retirement approaching, Nelson retains the same consuming passion for his work. During the Malibu fires, he was up for two days straight, almost giddy from exhaustion. During the Northridge earthquake last year, he ran his division’s command post for five consecutive days, working 18-hour shifts, refusing time off, never letting on that his own home had been so badly damaged that a year later his family still sleeps in a motor home parked in the yard.

“He left here within 30 minutes, and the only reason it took him that long was because he couldn’t find his keys and equipment,” recalls his wife Sue Ann, an airline flight attendant. “That’s the hard part of his job. You have to take care of everybody, total strangers as well as your own family.”

In years past, with the county Fire Department in the hands of a tradition-bound, by-the-book bureaucracy, Nelson was on the outside looking in, an outspoken activist whose blunt talk and blistering memos kept him from rising swiftly through the ranks.

“I think people outside the department appreciated Gary more than people inside the department,” says Mark Viles, the fire captain. “During the Old Topanga fire, when it was like a bomb had gone off, Gary came in and very calmly set up a command structure. It was typical. The department would never listen to his ideas until Malibu was on fire, and suddenly they’d go, ‘Where’s Nelson!’ ”

Today, perhaps belatedly, Nelson is getting his due. Under L.A. County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, and with many of his students and old station captains in positions of power, Nelson is viewed as a departmental resource--the Wise Man of Wildfire. Even in the twilight of his service, he is still pushing for reforms. He was part of a select group that developed a standardized communication network to allow the department’s tactical and command systems to operate on the same frequencies during an emergency. During Nelson’s stint in the Santa Monicas, he also developed a wild-land advance-attack plan, now used countywide, which can instantly familiarize firefighters with specific safety zones, danger areas and evacuation directions for fire hazard areas.

Nelson is generous about sharing his knowledge, teaching several wild-land fire strategy courses throughout the year. But his antipathy toward bureaucracy remains. Instead of finishing out his years of service with a cozy Downtown post, he prefers to remain in Santa Clarita. “He’s where he likes to be--out in the field,” says Larry C. Miller, operations chief deputy of the L.A. County Fire Department, who once worked as an engineer at one of Nelson’s stations. “Putting Gary behind a desk would be like taking Gen. (Norman H.) Schwarzkopf away from his troops and sticking him in some office in Washington.”

Even with tract developments springing up everywhere in Santa Clarita, you don’t have to look very far to find native, fire-prone land. Across the street from the fire station is an open field, dotted from summer on with dry grass and chaparral. Fuel. The first newsworthy blaze of 1994, October’s Agua Dulce fire, took place just 15 minutes away, scorching 1,000 acres along the Antelope Valley Freeway and Agua Dulce Canyon Road.

It was classic Southland fire weather--100 degrees with Santa Anas gusting at 25-to-30 m.p.h. Nelson was expecting the worst. Throughout the year the department’s forestry division issues a biweekly report that gauges the moisture content of foliage in various fire hazard areas. In the spring, after the winter rains, the moisture content tops out at nearly 200%. At midsummer, it dips to 100%. By last October, the moisture content had declined to as low as 65% in many areas. To Nelson, those kinds of numbers set off warning bells--they mean that once a fire gets going, it will burn all night.

When the alarm for the Agua Dulce fire sounded, Nelson was preparing to coach his 7-year-old son’s Saturday soccer match. He handed the team lineup to his wife and hopped onto the Antelope Freeway. Up ahead was a bad sign--a smoke column rising high in the air. Charged with adrenaline, he began plotting strategy. The big question: Was the fire north or south of the freeway? If he could establish a fire line along the freeway, he’d have a good chance of containing the blaze. That is, if the winds didn’t whip the fire out of control.

“Usually you say, we can probably build a fire line line faster than the fire,” Nelson explains, retracing his route a few weeks after the blaze. “But on a windy day, the answer is no. The fire’s going to work faster than you can. So then you look on the map for an advantageous point--a natural barrier like a river, a freeway, even a housing tract--where you know the fire’s going to slow down enough for you to have a chance to stop it.”

A self-effacing man who lets others boast about his accomplishments, Nelson will patiently provide tons of detail about firefighting tactics, but he skimps on the nerve-crackling tension and drama, as if it might somehow cheapen the experience. It’s a trait you see in nearly all Fire Guys. Their lingo is as laconic as a Chuck Yeager-era fighter pilot: a howling Santa Ana is a “wind event,” an explosive blaze about to incinerate hundreds of homes is described as a “blow-up.”

As Nelson neared the Agua Dulce fire, someone honked at him on the freeway--a Division 6 duty chief assigned to the blaze. While the duty chief established a command post, Nelson circled the blaze to study its speed and intensity. His tour of the front brought good news. Unlike the ferocious 60-m.p.h. Santa Ana gusts in the Old Topanga fire, the winds were a manageable 20-to-30 m.p.h. His ground troops--fire engine and bulldozer operators--were deployed at the flanks of the fire, stopping its progress. He also had air support. Four air tankers were flying in at five-minute intervals, doing what’s known as “painting the head,” dropping red fire-retardant on the front of the fire.

“Once you have the head under control, then you attack the flanks,” Nelson explains. “You have to get them under control, otherwise you have two new heads to the fire. The freeway was our right flank, but the left flank was open. We had a road there, which is normally a good natural barrier, but the road wasn’t straight and it was down in a canyon with turbulent winds, so I didn’t want to let the fire burn to the road.”

Nelson had another reason for being leery about letting the fire get near the road. Behind it were what firefighters call “structures”--people’s houses. “You never let time elapse and wait for a fire to burn somewhere,” he explains. “Too many things can happen--bad things. So we went for a direct attack.”

The Agua Dulce fire was contained within a matter of hours. Whether it’s a large fire or a small one, Nelson attacks with the same fervor. Just ask Larry Miller, who, as chief deputy of fire operations, is now Nelson’s boss. Years ago, when he was a lowly engineer in a fire station under Nelson’s jurisdiction, Miller was casually sweeping the floor when he found himself face-to-face with his boss. The chief started peppering Miller with questions about street locations, fire hydrants and hazardous buildings in the area.

“I remember saying, ‘I don’t know. I’ve only been here an hour.’ And Gary immediately responded, ‘You’ve been here an hour and you don’t know what our target hazards are? You think sweeping the floor is more important than getting to a fire and saving someone’s life?’ ”

After Nelson left, Miller recalls saying to himself: “Wow! How do I get closer to that guy? He had a real passion for his job. He was on fire.”

Wind is what makes a fire deadly. When the Santa Anas sweep in from the northeast, they blow the dusty desert air through the canyons and, after a couple of days, out to the Pacific, knocking the waves flat. Nelson has seen winds whip through canyons at up to a hurricane-like 80-to-100 m.p.h. Give those winds a tiny spark of fire and they’ll whip up a monstrous inferno in half an hour. In 1982, a fire started on the western side of the San Fernando Valley, burned over the hills, jumped the Ventura Freeway and raced all the way to the ocean. Nelson went up in a helicopter to eyeball the blaze and almost ended up smashed on a nearby hillside.

“It was frightening,” he recalls one day, driving through the Santa Monica Mountains in the department’s red Ford sedan. “I thought the wind was going to flip us over. We went from Calabasas to the ocean like that --we had a 75-m.p.h. wind at our tail. When we took off, I looked over at the pilot and he was hanging onto his stick, just trying to control it, as if someone was yanking it away from him.”

Under normal conditions, a fire will putter along at about a quarter of a mile to half a mile an hour. At that speed, most blazes can be brought under control with water drops from helicopters and air tankers, which can spread up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant on a fire. (The county’s new Super Scoopers only drop 1,400 gallons of water but have a quicker turnaround time.) But if most fires rumble along like a dump truck, a Santa Ana-driven blaze races through the hills like a Ferrari, moving at 2 or 3, sometimes 4 m.p.h. It doesn’t sound like much until you’ve been out on the line, watching a fire eat up ground as fast as a sprinter running a 440. The 1978 Kanan fire, Nelson recalls, started in Agoura and was destroying houses on the beach in Malibu 2 1/2 hours later.

“When a Santa Ana is blowing,” he says, driving along the path of the Old Topanga fire, “it doesn’t matter about uphill or downhill, you’re not gonna stop the fire.”

In 1960, when Nelson was practically a rookie on the job, he had command of a crew of convicts who were cutting brush miles away from a fire in the San Gabriel Mountains. When time for lunch came, Nelson led his men down into a grove of oak trees at the bottom of a canyon. As they were eating, Nelson began picking up frantic radio messages calling for the evacuation of all units in the Rincon campground area.

“I wondered where that was until I realized--Rincon campground. That’s me!” Nelson recalls. “The radio guy got excited, saying ‘Get out of that area immediately! There’s a firestorm!’ All of a sudden I saw the wind pick up and people hopping in their trucks, making a mad dash to get out of there.”

Convinced that they could not get out safely in their cars, Nelson ordered them into the middle of a wide, dry riverbed where there was very little flammable brush. He made them stand at attention, bandannas over their noses, as the blaze blew through the sides of the canyon. “All I knew was that one minute there was no fire there, and then suddenly there was fire everywhere.”

It’s a sobering realization. Once a wind-driven fire starts , it simply can’t be stopped. Barely 90 minutes after the Old Topanga fire had started, Nelson watched the wind-buffeted blaze race south out of the Calabasas Highlands. He knew exactly where it would be later that afternoon. “There was no sense trying to stop the fire,” he recalls. “It was going to go to the ocean.”

The best defense against such an overwhelming adversary: Fire Guy humor. “We’re famous for stopping all our fires at the Pacific Ocean,” Nelson says. “We’ve never had one go any further. We’d be in big trouble if we were in Colorado, wouldn’t we?”

Nelson is a plain-spoken man, but when he talks about his work, especially describing the incendiary howl of a firestorm, his language is terse and compelling. “Extreme fire behavior is very uncomfortable,” he says, quietly warming to the topic. “A fire makes a roaring sound. When it builds up steam, it almost sounds like a train roaring down the tracks, because it has so much built-up energy. You hear trees burning that are loaded with moisture and they just explode like firecrackers.

“You can’t see very much because of the smoke and embers flying around. And it’s hard to breathe--there’s all sorts of things flying at you. My worst experience was a 1975 fire. For about four solid hours, I went from house to house--it was extreme, smoky and dry. It was so bad that my eyes got so dried out that they were just raw from the wind and heat and smoke blowing in your eyes. The smoke gags you so you can’t breathe. Some guys vomit from the smoke because your body can’t take so much exposure.”

Nelson’s wife, Sue Ann, heard about the Old Topanga fire by turning on the news. “She knows I don’t want to miss a big fire,” he explains, a hint of mischief in his voice. “I tell her not to worry because I’m a commander, so I’m way back at a command post. But then when I come back home and I’m smelling pretty awful, she’ll say, ‘Gee, if you were all the way back at the command post, how’d you get so smoky?’ ”

“You have to be willing to re-evaluate your tactics with changing conditions,” Nelson says, pointing at a crude outline of the Agua Dulce fire he’s chalked out on a blackboard. “Maybe the bulldozers show up faster than you thought. Maybe the wind changes direction. Always look for opportunities to execute a more direct attack.”

Wherever the Wise Man of Wildfire goes, you can usually find a blackboard nearby. Much of Nelson’s free time is devoted to teaching classes on wildfire strategy or incident command training. His wife Sue Ann jokes that when she and Gary drive to the mountains on a skiing trip, she can tell his mind is wandering. “When I ask him what he’s thinking about, he’ll say, ‘Training.’ ”

Today her husband is chairing an informal seminar with a group of assistant fire chiefs who have gathered at county headquarters in East Los Angeles to discuss firefighting tactics. His middle-aged pupils wear their fire-commander uniforms: crisp white shirts, black ties, badges and nameplates, with gold-plated trumpet pins on their collars (miniature replicas of the horns that 19th-Century fire chiefs used to direct maneuvers while fighting a blaze.)

As a test of fire response strategies, Nelson passes out copies of a topographical map of the Santa Monicas, which shows a sample fire burning along a high ridge. He peppers the chiefs with questions. Judging from the fire’s location, what will be its rate of spread? Where will the fire be in three hours? What is the best plan of action--an attack on the fire’s left flank or its right?

At one point, the meeting is interrupted by a reminder that promotion recommendations are due the next day. The men respond with a chorus of groans. “They never listen to any of my recommendations,” one chief says. Another complains: “I’m batting zero.” A third chief grumbles: “Why do they want to have ‘em?”

Nelson’s response: “So they can ignore ‘em.”

Firefighters have about as much fondness for desk-jockey formalities as cowboys had for barbed-wire fences. Holed up in Spartan fire stations, they inhabit a clannish, nearly all-male world, its long hours of idle time interrupted by sudden fits of hellbent action. They are risk takers, according to Nelson, men who like physically oriented challenges.

“Ask firefighters what they do on their days off and they’ll be off skiing, mountain climbing or river rafting,” he says. “I’m not a risk taker, but the guys I ski with, they go straight downhill. It’s like that with fires. You get a buzz. You like that and you want to get more of it.”

In 1960, when he was a rookie firefighter, Nelson earned $5,700 a year. Today a starting fireman’s salary is about $38,000. After three years as an assistant chief, Nelson now earns $105,000. Work shifts are 24 hours long, beginning at 8 a.m. One day on, two days off. In a sense, firefighters have two lives: one at home and one at the station, where they have their own beds, recreation rooms and kitchen facilities.

A cross between a military camp and a fraternity house, the fire station has its own language and tradition--and a stubborn resistance to change. Simply consider the manly rites of preparing dinner. “The whole eating thing is a ritual,” Nelson explains one day as he gives me a tour of his station. “We can take up to three or four hours a day, all around food. The whole company goes to the market in the firetruck, because if we sent two guys off, then the company would be understaffed.”

Permanent cooks don’t last. “Firemen are very critical, and they get cranky and start criticizing the cook’s food, and finally, the cook gets upset and says, ‘I quit! Get someone else!’ And then we’re back to breaking in a new cook,” Nelson explains.

Having spent much of his childhood living in a house behind the Santa Clarita fire station, watching his dad fight fires, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelson would end up a firefighter himself. But he was too independent to fit squarely into the department’s conservative, go-along get-along mold. He almost lost out on being promoted to battalion chief in 1978 because he refused to get a haircut.

“The department was aghast when a few of us started growing our hair long,” Nelson recalls over lunch one day. “The chiefs would have a meeting and spend the whole time talking about long hair--and what to do about it. You could be the dumbest s- - - in the world and still be a success if you dressed correctly. Finally I told our chiefs I wished they’d worry about what was in my head instead of what was on my head.”

To Nelson, good leaders not only motivate, but they also encourage free thinking. He was an early supporter of giving women a chance to prove themselves as firefighters, still a prickly issue, especially with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, which has been rocked by a series of embarrassing disclosures about its treatment of female recruits.

As Nelson worked his way up through the ranks, graduating from inspector to captain to battalion chief and finally, in 1991, to assistant fire chief, he developed a colorful patois for describing the department’s by-the-book drudges. Bureaucrats, for example, are “naugers,” office-bound dolts who sit in Naugahyde chairs.

Change came slowly, much to Nelson’s frustration. “Each day Gary would say--I’m a new person, I’m not going to lose control again,” recalls Assistant County Fire Chief Steve Alexander, who served under Nelson as an engineer in the 1970s. “But then something stupid would happen, and he’d blow up and say, ‘Line ‘em up against a wall and shoot ‘em!’ ”

Nelson’s longtime pals invented a term for these tirades--the Tasmanian Devil act. One of Nelson’s legendary flame-outs occurred when he was a captain and had prepared a host of sophisticated fire-prevention materials for an inspection tour by his commanding officer. The visiting chief didn’t show the slightest interest in the planning material. He wanted to know why the hose tower, which had been cited on a past inspection, still hadn’t been given a coat of fresh paint.

“I had deliberately refused to paint it because I was so pissed,” Nelson recalls with obvious delight. “So I just blew up and said, ‘I painted the f - - -ing hose tower with that cheap county aluminum paint and look at it, three months later--it’s all flaked off and it looks like s- - - and why don’t you find out why the county can’t get some decent quality paint for my men!’

“And the chief really backed off and said, ‘Oh, that’s not good. We better look into that.’ ”

Nelson flashes a triumphant smile. “He left me alone after that, so I realized the Tasmanian Devil act had its uses.”

Gary Nelson has his eye on a clump of eucalyptus hugging a nearby hillside. “Eucalyptus trees really go up easy,” he explains. “You see a grove of eucalyptus, you see a fire source. Pine trees burn easily, too. The only trees that are really fire-resistant are oak trees.”

All day long we’ve been driving across the Santa Monicas, stopping every so often to clamber down into the brush so Nelson can point out another reason why this seemingly placid landscape can explode into a deadly firestorm. Seen through Nelson’s eyes, this vast urban wilderness displays a different, more complex profile. At the top of a hill we drive along a dirt road, past a row of mailboxes. The houses are tucked away out of view, but Nelson has, by instinct, counted the mailboxes. “That’s a clue for us of how many people live out here,” he explains. “So we know we’ve got 14 homes out here somewhere.”

You don’t see many oaks near the twin water tanks on Mt. Calabasas ridge, just above Old Topanga Canyon Road, which is where the fierce Old Topanga fire began. Within minutes, the wind-whipped flames swirled out of control, moving south across the mountains to the ocean, leaving 35,000 charred acres in its wake.

A year later, it’s easy to follow the fire’s path, the area still scarred with stick-figure-like trees and brush. To contain the ferocious blaze, state officials and city and county fire departments mobilized 900 fire engines--the largest assemblage of urban firefighting resources in U.S. history. The department also had the right man to help lead its fight. “Gary didn’t mess around--he said, ‘We’re not going to let this fire get out of Topanga,’ ” recalls county Fire Battalion Chief Mike Balzano, a division supervisor on the fire. “It’s really an art to watch him work a fire.”

As we drive down to where Old Topanga meets Topanga Canyon Boulevard, it becomes obvious why it was so crucial to keep the fire out of the nearby community of Fernwood. The area is a firefighter’s nightmare, its maze of narrow streets twisting pretzel-like up and down the surrounding hills, which are choked with foliage. We drive up a tiny street littered with dead leaves and brush. It’s a tight fit for Nelson’s mid-size car, impassable for a bulky fire engine. “Can you imagine getting an engine up this hill, past this debris and then around this steep part and up that driveway?” he says gravely. “Not going to happen.”

We pass a house with a tepee in the back yard. Nelson points to where the owner has carefully trimmed the lower branches of his trees--known as “limbing up” the tree--a good 30 feet above the ground. Unfortunately, his neighbor’s home across the street has trees and brush stretching right to the road’s edge. “That poor guy thinks his house is safe because he’s cleared the brush on his side of the road,” Nelson says. “But if there’s any wind here, the fire’s going to jump the road in an instant.”

He shakes his head. “And his home’s gone .”

As he drives along a bumpy fire road above the town of Topanga, Nelson offers an unsparing assessment of various homeowner fire-prevention measures. A pretty Spanish-style home at the top of a scenic ridge gets good marks for its tile roof, stucco siding, small eaves and modest-sized windows. The home’s major drawback is a carport attached to the house, which could easily catch fire and spread to the main structure.

In Topanga, Nelson only sees one cause for optimism: The area is thick with clumps of hard-to-burn oak trees, which has helped the area survive previous blazes. His worst-case scenario isn’t pretty: a windblown fire racing down from the hills north of town would be virtually unstoppable. “If the fire comes from the north,” Nelson says grimly. “They’d be in big trouble.”

Local residents know how narrow the margin is between safety and death by fiery inferno. A year after the Old Topanga blaze, handwritten signs were still posted along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, saying “God bless you firefighters.”

Nelson drives up to a ridge where he stood during the worst hours of the Old Topanga fire. A nearby knoll, scorched black a year ago, is already coming back to life, sharp green spears of grass emerging amid the dry chaparral. “In five years it’s going to look full and bushy all over again,” Nelson says as he walks back up the hill, the earth soft under his feet. “In 10 years, you won’t know there was ever a fire here.”