Another Topanga Fire Heightens Fire Fatigue

Family and friends evacuate the Topanga Community Center during intermission of Matilda the Musical. The children seemed excited and unfazed but momentarily panicked when they asked if they could leave with their costumes on. Photo by Bonnie Morgan

Once again, fire season upends earthly plans smack in the middle of a lovely children’s play on a warm, cloudless Sunday afternoon until a fire changes everything. 

Parents, friends, and grandparents had gathered at the Topanga Community Center to cheer on their young actors in a school production of Matilda the Musical. 

At intermission, everyone moved outside to stretch their legs and snack on chocolate cake. At 3:35 the young actress playing Matilda came up to her mother seated in front of me with an earnest look on her face and said, “Mommy, there’s a fire.”

Minutes later, Kristy Beauvais, the show’s producer/director informed everyone that there was a fire just blocks south of the Community Center and we should evacuate.

Since the Boulevard was closed south of the fire where we lived, we stayed at TCC and watched the blooming smoke plumes as two “super scooper” firefighting fixed-wing Quebecs arrived to join Fire Hawk helicopter tankers in a precisely timed aerial ballet: as one tanker dropped its load, another was right behind it. Fortunately, the wind was light, quelling fears of another out-of-control wildfire. We felt better watching from there than being “in the dark” at home.

When the Boulevard emptied, we drove to friends who owned the house on the next ridge closer to the fire and watched with them and others as the fire fighters continued to battle the blaze that seemed destined to give in to the sustained firefighting efforts. We watched in awe as dozens of “fire-breakers,” dark-suited and orange-suited, moved up to the ridge above the flames. We saw them gather then spill out and shave the hilltop of brush with their chainsaws. We saw them move as groups to where we guessed were emerging hot-spots.

Ground crews were deployed to the upper ridge to create firebreaks and douse hotspots. Photo by Urs Baur

The sky was full of helicopters and fixed wings each carrying their water loads picked up from either 69 Bravo over the ridge or from the ocean. 

We drove home to Fernwood via Mulholland and Old Topanga Canyon. Not only was Matilda the Musical disrupted but a wedding party at The 1909 was also evacuated. I could only imagine a distressed mother of the bride running from place to place with the news that the Boulevard was closed, preventing guests from arriving and wondering if they should evacuate.

Fire season in Southern California pays no heed to earthly schedules. It continues to create havoc and fray nerves. But once again, with the help of crack firefighting units and a growing wealth of knowledge of how to be aware and prepared, even in the smallest of fires, we continue to be okay.

Bruce Royer watches firefighters in action on the hill behind his house. The fire started due to spontaneous combustion of oily rags left in the sun. Photo by Urs Baur

TCEP reported the next day 80 percent containment and that a total of 4.3 acres burned. The source of the fire was determined to be spontaneous combustion of an oily rag at the home of Bruce and Teresa Royer, who contacted the Messenger Mountain News with the details

“I want to take this opportunity to, first, thank the first responders for being on the scene in what seemed like minutes. Full air support was instrumental in helping contain the fire,” Royer said. “Second, I would like to apologize for any inconvenience the incident caused. I am aware that a number of events were disrupted, Topanga Canyon Blvd. was closed for hours, and neighbors prepared to evacuate. 

“Third, I would like to inform and educate my fellow Topangans about what happened and what to look out for when using oil-based stains,” Royer continued. 

Rapid response by water-dropping helicopters and the fixed-wing Quebec 1 and 2 tankers kept the blaze contained. Photo by Urs Baur

“Most of the people I told about this, had no idea that a rag used for oil-based stain could spontaneously combust. The fire was a freak accident. A rag used to remove excess stain from our deck was placed in the dirt away from the trash as we started to clean the area and put our tools away. There was nothing on top of the rag, but it was not laid flat to dry because immediate cleanup was expected. A distraction occurred that resulted in a few hours before the cleanup was continued. It turned out to be a hot day and the afternoon breeze picked up.

“We are SO RELIEVED that nobody was hurt and no structures were affected.”

Tips for storing and disposing of oily rags.

  1. Never store rags in a pile. Used rags should be spread out in a safe flat area to dry.  
  2. Store the rags in an airtight, non-combustible metal container. If you plan to use your rags later, this step is critical. 
  3. The easiest and safest way to store and dispose of flammable oily rags is to soak them in water in a metal container with a lid. As long as the lid is sealed, you can keep the rags in the container until you’re ready to take them to a disposal facility.(Sources: and


Bonnie Morgan

Bonnie is the Chief Operating Officer for the Messenger Mountain News. She comes from a rich background of research, marketing and technology and is the company's business manager, web designer and social media geek.

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