Arson Watch Prevents Fires and Saves Lives

Scott King poses with the updated, reflective Arson Watch signs replacing the old ones
throughout Topanga and Malibu. Photo by Dan Schag

This is Part 2 in a series about the local volunteer organizations that are part of or affiliated with the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP). If nobody told you when you moved to a home in the mountains that you would be living in an “Extreme Fire Hazard Area,” pay attention.

Many Topanga residents lived through the devastating 10-day fire in 1993 that swept from the top of Old Topanga Canyon to Malibu, killing three people and destroying more than 300 homes. Topangans still live under the near constant threat of wildfires, especially on hot, windy Red Flag days.

A Red Flag warning means that critical fire weather conditions are expected. Gusty Santa Ana winds, low relative humidity and hot temperatures is the formula for extreme fire danger in unincorporated wildland areas, such as Topanga, Malibu and other rural mountain communities.

If you have chosen to live here, you need to know what to do when a disaster strikes r, better yet, how to prevent one. Meet the Arson Watch Team.

Since its founding in 1982, vigilant teams of Arson Watch volunteers patrol the hillsides and canyons with radios and binoculars every Red Flag day and especially on the Fourth of July.

In the years that Arson Watch volunteers have been on patrol, only one major fire has been started in the Topanga/Malibu area. Notably, it was Arson Watch volunteers who reported the Old Topanga Canyon Fire in November of 1993 at Summit Road.  

Under the direction and supervision of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Arson Watch volunteers from Malibu, Topanga, Agoura Hills and Calabasas patrol more than 185 square miles of the Santa Monica Mountains during periods of extreme fire weather conditions.

After a Sheriff’s Department background check, each volunteer is issued an official ID, two-way radio, safety vest and shirt, a hat and vehicle identification signs. Volunteers are trained in what to look for when patrolling and how to communicate via two-way radio during patrols.

“When it’s a Red Flag day, we have specific routes. Some of the things we are looking for are people smoking or places where people hike at trail heads. We look out for people doing brush clearance,” said local Arson Watch leader Will Carey, “and are always scanning the hillsides for possible smoke. One of the biggest deterrents is just seeing us out there; if they see us, they will go somewhere else.”

During July Fourth weekend celebrations, pairs of Arson Watch volunteers are stationed at critical areas throughout Malibu and Topanga working in conjunction with Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, CHP and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to insure fire safety and responsible behavior.

“We’ve prevented all the fires we haven’t had,” Carey said.

Recently, Arson Watch members have been replacing the older Arson Watch signs with an updated reflective version developed by Todd Prince of Malibu Arson Watch. The signs are

mounted below the LA County Fire Department brush clearance signs that warn, “No Open

Fire” and “No Smoking.” Scott King has been fabricating and installing Arson Watch signs

for several years and has recently begun fabricating the new reflective signs on a larger

background board in bright red.

“These signs move us to a new level of public attention and awareness,” Carey said.  

“So far we have replaced all the Topanga signs and are working on finishing Malibu. Signs that are old and weathered typically indicate an old and weathered program. Bright new shiny signs tell folks we are active and paying attention.”

In addition to patrolling the area for potential fire dangers, this team supplies information to the Topanga Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP). Like most volunteer organizations, Arson Watch welcomes volunteers and relies on contributions for the purchase of radios and other equipment in order to operate.

For more information, contact Will Carey (310) 455-1833; or; or


Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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