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Op-Ed: Lessons in preparedness from a high-risk fire zone

A helicopter drops water onto a fire in Topanga Canyon.
During the 2017 Topanga fire, helicopters that dropped water were frequently used.
(Greg Doyle / Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness)

On a recent afternoon, I was reading about the Bobcat fire ravaging the San Gabriel Mountains when a text landed on my phone: A new fire was burning somewhere in Topanga, where I live.

Immediately I checked the website of a local volunteer organization, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. The group, known as TCEP (pronounced TEE-sep in these parts), disseminates information when there is an emergency in the canyon. To call it a critical resource would be an understatement. If a mega-fire tore through Topanga the way the Camp fire did Paradise, the kind of information provided by TCEP could save lives.

I rely on the group so often, I’ve made its website my homepage.

Well before I could smell smoke, I learned “numerous” spot fires were burning in the canyon and knew their locations, their approximate size (half-acre) and that they were “running uphill.”

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Soon I knew their cause. Police were chasing a hit-and-run suspect who was driving a truck towing a double-axle trailer. The axle was shooting off sparks, which ignited dry brush lining the canyon walls. The pursuit ended with a 45-minute standoff on Pacific Coast Highway, where the driver, shirtless in swim trunks, was taken into custody. A sign in the back of his truck said: “I GOT THIS.”

If the driver did not live up to his sign, our local fire station did. The biggest fire was knocked out by 9:30 that night. In the meantime, Topanga residents could get detailed status updates from TCEP’s website and Twitter feed.

L.A. County Firehawk helicopters fill their water tanks at a fire base in Topanga Canyon.
L.A. County Firehawk helicopters fill their water tanks at a fire base in Topanga Canyon.
(Greg Doyle / Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness)

I knew when the fire had grown to seven acres, and that it had been halted at 10 acres, a crucial piece of information that meant I did not have to evacuate. If I had had to flee, I would have known to take a back route out — one update reported, “Boulders the size of trash cans continue to roll off the mountain onto Topanga Blvd.”

Similar volunteer organizations are scattered across the American West — they tend to pop up in the wake of devastating fires, along with the wildflowers. But few have it down quite like TCEP. “They are uniquely organized,” said Drew Smith, an acting assistant fire chief at the county fire department and renowned fire behaviorist.

TCEP is unusual partly because it’s been around for almost 30 years. Topanga, with its dense chaparral, narrow canyons and notorious Santa Ana winds, was a high-risk fire zone long before global warming turned fire tornados and “lightning complexes” into common events. Residents formed the organization in 1993 after a wind-fueled fire destroyed 400 homes and left three dead.

A car on fire ignites brush in Topanga.
Many fires in the Santa Monica Mountains are ignited by cars, including this one in July 2019 in Topanga.
(James Grasso / Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness)

Today the group’s operations fall into two categories: education and communication. In blue-sky conditions, the emphasis is on the former. In meetings and dispatches, and in a disaster survival guide sent to every household, TCEP stresses preparedness — “the empowering alternative to denial,” reads a guide tagline. The general topics may be familiar — brush clearance, “defensible space,” evacuation plans — but the directions are often terrifically specific. “Snakes can be transported in a pillowcase,” reads one tip in a section on animal preparedness. “When transporting house lizards, follow the instructions for birds,” says another.

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A few months after the Woolsey fire in November 2018, the group helped put on a Topanga Emergency Fair, where disaster prep somehow acquired a festive atmosphere. There were food trucks, music and booths hawking apocalypse merch. I picked up a bandanna with a map of Topanga’s evacuation zones printed on it and a couple of walkie-talkies. Emergency responders gave presentations, including one with mesmerizing time-lapse footage of helicopters refilling their water tanks at 69 Bravo, a ridgetop fire base nearby. In another, I learned about a new flammable menace in our midst — “mustard of unprecedented size” — brought on by heavy rains.

The text landed late Thursday night from PulsePoint, the app that connects the Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatch system to my husband’s cellphone.

As fire season approaches, TCEP’s focus switches to communication. This often means gathering information and posting updates online. The group has direct lines to local agencies, including the L.A. County Fire Department, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol. “We only put out verified information,” explained Scott Ferguson, chairman of TCEP’s board of directors.

Although I get Fire Department alerts through PulsePoint, a mobile app connected to 911, the additional updates from TCEP can make the difference between peace of mind and panic. Two days after the police chase, I received a PulsePoint alert about a Calabasas brush fire. If the app had been my only source of information, I might have monitored the fire all day. But TCEP came through with a pertinent detail. The “fire” was actually “smoke from pet cemetery cremating a large animal.”

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When there is a large fire (or mudslide, or flood, or earthquake), more than 30 volunteers drop what they are doing and assume various duties. Duty officers staff the website and Twitter feed, a hotline team provides updates via landline phones, and a radio team operates a ham-radio network. Their hub is a formal Emergency Operations Center in town.

Later, the teams integrate any new lessons learned. During the Woolsey fire, much of Topanga lost power for the first 30 hours, and with it, all ability to communicate. (Topanga doesn’t have a cell tower.) When mandatory evacuation orders went out, many residents didn’t know. Since then, TCEP has been upgrading its radio network and is looking into the feasibility of installing an old-fashioned siren warning system in the canyon. Malibu is doing the same.

Two Sundays ago, TCEP ran a community-wide test of the improved radio network. I dusted off the walkie-talkies and tuned in for a “Top of the Hour” test broadcast, then switched to my neighborhood channel, as instructed, for a roll call. “Walkie-talkie etiquette was good,” a voice from somewhere concluded.

My spouse and I made the inevitable walkie-talkie jokes, but the drill left an impression. The next morning, I eyed a corridor of dry rosemary bushes as if they were enemy invaders, vowing to replace them with aloes. And while we don’t have snakes or house lizards, our dog and his go-bag are ready.

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Abby Aguirre is a writer in Los Angeles.


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