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Can firetrucks squeeze past?

Times Staff Writers

Two years after Los Angeles banned parking on hundreds of narrow hillside streets during red flag wind warnings, officials are still struggling to get residents to clear a path for firetrucks.

In densely populated canyon roads, there are simply more cars than available parking spaces -- and that has caused some residents to ignore the parking restrictions.

During last week’s red flag warning -- a three-day period in which homes burned across Southern California -- Los Angeles parking enforcement officers wrote nearly 400 citations for hillside fire-parking violations. Nearly 100 vehicles were impounded from Oct. 21 to 23, said Bruce Gillman, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.

City officials are frustrated by the lack of compliance, despite more than 5,000 red flag parking warning signs posted across 109 miles of canyon roads. Since January, officials have handed out 675 citations.

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Some residents say the signs don’t do much good because they don’t know when the National Weather Service declares red flag warnings.

“What’s that?” said Jasmin Cohen, who lives off Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills. “We just park here, we have no idea. When people have visitors, parking is stingy. The spaces go real quick.”

The parking crunch is more severe away from the multimillion-dollar hilltop estates in older districts around Hollywood, Echo Park, Mount Washington, Eagle Rock and Highland Park. In these areas, apartment complexes and small houses without driveways or garages pack the hills, and residents have to scavenge for spaces even when there are no parking restrictions.

Uri Egozi, who lives in Mount Washington, successfully contested a citation earlier this year by explaining he was never notified of the law.

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“I really hope this law saves lives, because so far it’s just irritating,” Egozi, 32, said. “What if I go away for a weekend and it’s suddenly a red flag day on Saturday? . . . Who’s going to move my car?”

Fire officials said the rules are needed because many canyon roads are simply too narrow for firetrucks to get through. Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief John Vidovich recalled a fire a few years ago in which six firefighters had to lift a car off a narrow hillside street so that firetrucks could get through. He noted during the massive Oakland hills fire of 1991, firetrucks were blocked from attacking the fire because cars blocked roads.

“Our goal is not to have an Oakland hills situation,” he said. “All it takes is one vehicle. You can visualize it happening in the Hollywood Hills or Mount Washington.”

Jon Braskin, a firefighter whose Station 44 covers Mount Washington, has driven engines for 10 years and says he has no margin for error on the tight, sloping streets.

“Most of the time, I’ve got an inch on both sides to maneuver,” he said of steering his 10-foot-wide, 25-foot-long rig. “Sometimes we barely slip by. Other times we have to honk the horn and get somebody to move their car. If there’s a brush fire up there, it would be really hectic.”

L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents hillside communities from Laurel Canyon to Los Feliz, said residents took a lot of time to adjust to the parking restrictions.

“People understand the importance of mobility, so any time we restrict parking it throws a hiccup in their giddyap,” said La Bonge.

But the massive Griffith Park fire this year appears to have been a turning point, and LaBonge and others said they’d noticed more people following the rules and keeping informed about red flag warnings since then.

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“It gave a lot of people awareness because they saw it right in front of them,” he said.

The parking signs urge residents to call the city’s 311 information line. In addition, fire stations fly red flags under the Stars and Stripes on red flag days. Officials also instituted a notification system that alerts residents through an automated phone call, a text message or an e-mail. It also announces cancellations of red flag conditions.

To get those notices, residents must register for the service either by calling 311 or going online to www.lafd.org/redflag.

Carmen Cherniawsky, a Hollywood Hills resident, is one of more than 2,800 people who have registered, the first day the red flag warning ceased. She received an e-mail Sunday telling her that the weather conditions had crossed the threshold to warrant a red flag -- a humidity level of 15% or lower and winds blowing at 25 mph or more.

“The parking officers have been really cool about it, saying, ‘Just try to park somewhere else,’ ” said Cherniawsky, 38, who has yet to be cited on her street, Woodrow Wilson Drive. “I know the reason for the rule: They don’t want this blocked. It’s just a bummer it has to be this way. There’s nowhere around here to park.”

The Fire Department, meanwhile, is trying to refine the system, hoping that will lead to wider compliance.

Officials are trying to create a system that would limit the red flag rules to “microclimates” most at risk for fire. If a certain weather system is creating Santa Ana winds more dangerous in the Westside than Eastside, for example, only those targeted ZIP Codes would have restrictions.

“The city is made up of a number of different microclimates; if one location is experiencing red flag conditions, not every location may be affected,” said Councilman Jose Huizar, who has heard complaints from residents who can’t find parking during high-wind days. “For instance, if there is a red flag day in San Fernando, it does not equate to a red flag day in Mount Washington.”

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Electronic signs in some canyon areas are also being considered as a way to announce red flag conditions -- though such signs are likely to face aesthetic concerns from hillside residents.

In Mount Washington, the neighborhood council is trying to push the city to open more lots available to residents during red flag warnings.

Robert Davis, 24, of Mount Washington now has few parking options.

He’s already received two tickets. His car was towed when he illegally left it at a public lot around the corner. And on the days he has no choice but to park at the bottom of his steep hill, it takes him 45 minutes to walk home.

“It’s very important that firefighters have access, but where do we put our cars?” said Davis, looking out onto Glenalbyn Drive -- a neighborhood with quaint homes, thick green brush and a curvy road just wide enough for two sedans to comfortably pass each other.

“I think it’s an exploitative situation,” he said.

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david.pierson@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@ latimes.com


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