Keeping Firebugs at Bay

Times Staff Writer

Brush-fire smoke hung heavily in the air over Topanga Canyon last week, sprinkling white ash the size of snowflakes over ridges and ravines covered with thick chaparral.

Catherine McClenahan wasn't studying the yellow-tinted sky, however. She was watching the motorcyclist who was stopped next to the road in front of her. He was pacing back and forth next to vegetation turned dry and brittle by days of heat and Santa Ana winds.

McClenahan jotted down the motorcycle's license number before moving on in her Ford Explorer, with its "Arson Watch" signs on the sides.

The 44-year-old actress, singer and mother of two was one of four dozen volunteers who fanned out on fire patrol along Topanga's twisting mountain roads during last week's firestorms.

Perhaps their vigilance paid off: No blazes broke out in the heavily populated Santa Monica Mountain communities at the western edge of Los Angeles County. Six Community Arson Watch teams have worked in the area for 21 years.

More than 125 volunteers certified by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department patrol parts of Topanga, Malibu, Agoura, Calabasas and Chatsworth on hot, windy "red flag" days.

The "Arson Watch" signs on their cars remind other residents of the fire danger. They also warn potential firebugs that somebody is watching.

"I truly believe we would have had a fire in Topanga in the last two weeks without Arson Watch," said Marty Brastow, who spent hours on patrol in her GMC Yukon last week.

The 48-year-old computer systems manager has lived in Topanga for 25 years. Shortly after moving in, she watched an arsonist-set fire sweep from Agoura to Malibu and across the mountains to a hillside above her new home.

"I didn't like the fact that somebody that mean, that arrogant, could set a fire and cause that much destruction," Brastow said.

So she was among the first to sign up when Arson Watch was launched in 1982 after another arson fire roared from the western edge of the San Fernando Valley through Calabasas to the coast, destroying 75 homes and blackening 54,000 acres.

The late actor Buddy Ebsen, who owned a ranch in the Liberty Canyon area of Agoura and whose family had twice been endangered by arsonist-set brush fires, proposed the creation of Arson Watch. Ebsen envisioned it as being something like a conventional anti-crime "neighborhood watch," except that it would operate in sparsely inhabited ranchland areas.

Ebsen, a friend of then-Sheriff Sherman Block, got the Sheriff's Department to sponsor the fire patrol and to help train volunteers. Restaurant owner Allen Emerson agreed to coordinate the group.

Now 78, Emerson still heads the Topanga team and helps with the other five groups. Last week, he worked 18-hour days -- assigning patrol routes, operating the Arson Watch two-way radio system and driving canyon roads himself in a community-donated Arson Watch van.

"We've never physically caught a firebug and we have no way of knowing how many we've stopped. But the Fire Department and the Sheriff's Department feel we have prevented fires," Emerson said.

Although authorities investigated whether a deadly 1993 brush fire had been purposely set on a hillside next to Old Topanga Canyon Road, no charges were ever filed against two suspects. Some officials later acknowledged that electrical lines that triggered a power failure at the time the fire broke out might have been the cause.

Still, "for the volunteers, it was like an athlete losing the game," Emerson says of that fire, which killed three and caused $375 million in damage as it burned through the west side of Topanga en route to the ocean.

Sheriff's Capt. Tom Martin, commander of the Lost Hills Station, said Arson Watch patrols cover a large portion of the 188-square-mile area protected by his station's deputies.

"A lot of that is brush-covered hillsides. It's a prime area for brush fires to pass through. And unfortunately arsonists are out there. The Arson Watch people provide an invaluable service," Martin said.

Those on arson patrol are taught not to be confrontational. "If somebody is out of their vehicle smoking, we explain the danger and ask them to extinguish their cigarette. They always comply," said one Arson Watch member, Dave Lichten, who spent eight hours a day on canyon roads in his Nissan Sentra last week -- including one overnight stint when fire crept over the mountain from Simi Valley into the Chatsworth foothills.

Like the others, Lichten, a 56-year-old classical string player and musical ethnologist, wears a county volunteer identification badge and a bright, lime-colored Arson Watch vest when on patrol. He said he joined the fire watch within days of moving to Topanga four years ago.

"If you're up here in the mountains, you owe it to yourself to get involved.... People who have lived here for a long time know the speed and violence of fire," he said.

The success of Arson Watch has helped spur the creation of other emergency volunteer groups in Topanga Canyon. There is a disaster response team, an equine response team, a pet emergency group and a canyon emergency operations center. All are coordinated by an umbrella group, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness.

In 2000 that group published a 56-page booklet, distributed to the canyon's nearly 3,000 homes, that urged residents to consider staying and protecting their homes during brush fires instead of automatically evacuating, as authorities always recommend. The publication, "Evacuating Topanga: Risks, Choices and Responsibilities," suggested that able-bodied adults consider planning to stay and protect their property.

Emerson said the coalition, run by resident Pat MacNeil, is a model for disaster preparedness for other communities.

Locals in Topanga are appreciative too.

As last week ended with storm clouds replacing smoke clouds above the canyon, Emerson drew waves and thumbs-up signals as he patrolled in the Arson Watch van.

"People here know that, even after it rains, things can be back as dry and dangerous as it was, after three days of hot Santa Anas," Emerson said.

"Brush fire season isn't over."

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