Last year Topanga Canyon experienced two fires where residents were mandated to evacuate. Those fires caused significant damage but were only a taste of the worst-case scenario.
Every year, L.A. County and the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force organizes an evacuation drill where residents receive a packet that contains vital preparedness information. This year, an “evacuation placard” was included to be placed on the dashboard of their cars so they could be counted as they passed two checkpoints along the evacuation route in the canyon.
At 10 a.m. on May 6, Alert LA, the county’s mass notification system, robo-called Topanga residents in the first zones to be evacuated. Follow-up Alert LA calls gradually went out as more zones were rolled into the evacuation. (Sign up at Alert.lacounty.go)
The annual drill is an opportunity for residents to practice their evacuation plan, learn about the organizations and meet the volunteers who train, practice and educate year-round about fire safety and emergency preparedness.
“The fires that occurred last year presented all of us—first responders and community members alike—with some unforeseeable and unpredictable challenges,” says Assistant Chief Anthony Williams, L.A. County Fire Department. “Let us learn from those and anticipate the unexpected as we ‘practice like we play.’”
Each fire is different and practicing your plan is the best way to keep you, your family, and your neighbors safe.
TCEP EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER
By Flavia Potenza
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 6, TCEP’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was fully staffed and ready to go with six people, four on the hotline and two in the radio room.
It was Connie Whally’s first time on the hotline and when the phone rang, the three hotline veterans, Karla Morrison, Janice Harmonand Carol Day sat back in their chairs and let her take the call.
“I need the practice,” Whally said.
As if that were a cue, all the phones started to ring at once and the women went into action.
In the radio room, Sam Skolfield was collecting evacuee head counts every 15 minutes from Taft High School and the two checkpoints in Topanga, then passing it on to Terry Cox who digitally sent an official form to the L.A. Sheriffs Department, DCS and the Fire Department’s Incident Command Post at King Gillette’s Diamond X Ranch, where the information was sent to the appropriate agencies.”
“Normally, TCEP is the backbone of communications in the canyon,” said Skolfield. “Today, because it’s a drill, everyone is doing double duty. The sheriffs are stationed at 69 Bravo with their van testing out communications from there. Because of its location, 69 Bravo is critical to TCEP and communications in the canyon; it can talk to everyone in Topanga.”
There were some glitches: radio communication from Taft was breaking up and the flurry of calls that came into the hotline seemed to be coming from the hotline number itself.
“The goal of TCEP is to communicate verified information through HAM radio and hotline capabilities,” Cox explained. We learn from the problems that arise.”
Fire engines and patrol cars were stationed in the various zones throughout the canyon to evaluate needs, identify public safety areas (PSAs) and” other things that would help us protect homes, lives and property,” said one engineer.
By 11:30, the drill was basically completed. Topanga volunteers would compare notes and debrief, learn from the problems that arose and find solutions.
Of 10,000 residents in the canyon, only 130 individuals and families took the drill seriously enough to check in at Taft High School. They’ve probably never seen a wall of fire bearing down on them. Topanga is lucky to have its first responders, among them its own Fire Station 69 and 69 Bravo, and the many volunteer organizations that train, practice and educate year-round about fire safety and emergency preparedness.
For those who didn’t participate, just remember: When the call comes or the sheriff comes knocking on your door to evacuate, pack up and get out of town. Pronto.
TAFT HIGH SCHOOL
By Annemarie Donkin
When Alert LA robo-calls went out to Topanga residents in the first zones to be evacuated, they were instructed to leave northbound via Topanga Canyon Blvd. or Old Topanga Road and go to Taft High School where they would check in.
On hand to greet them in the Taft parking lot at Ventura and Winnetka were volunteers from T-CEP (tcep.org), the Topanga Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), L.A. County Disaster Communications (TKTK), the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council (ntcfsc.org) and Topanga Small Animal Rescue. (topangaanimalrescue.org; firstname.lastname@example.org).
They were asked to first check in at the TCEP booth and fill out a simple one-page survey. Then, every participant received a fun “Topanga Zone” map bandana with vital emergency phone numbers to keep in the car and a lithium battery charger for cell phones, also helpful in an emergency.
By the end of the drill, around 11:30 a.m., 130 people had signed in and received their gifts. Even though it was a vastly scaled-down exercise from years past, it did not diminish the importance of having an evacuation plan.
Topanga residents Shannon and David McGiffert in Zone 9 quickly responded to the evacuation call Saturday morning. Their concerns were the approximately 50 percent of the folks in their neighborhood who are new to the area and not experienced with Topanga.
“Everyone goes through a period of breaking in to the way Topanga works,” Shannon said. “You can tell by how fast they drive on the road; the new people drive too fast distracted by their cell phones.”
Both David and Shannon also felt that the newcomers weren’t taking the evacuation drill seriously enough and could put themselves and others at risk as a result. “There is a natural sense of denial,” David said, “but people’s lives depend on it.”
The McGifferts recalled emergencies such as the1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1993 Old Topanga-Malibu Wildfire.
“They have not yet seen a fire in Topanga like in 1993,” David said. “They have no memory of a 200-foot wall of flame coming over the hills; that would put the fear of God in them.”
The McGifferts said they felt prepared, having received the survival packet in the mail, checking the T-CEP Facebook page and getting multiple calls from Alert L.A. during the exercise.
At the T-CEP booth, John Mac Neil and Bryce Anderson headed up the contingency with volunteers Linnea Mielcarek, Mariko Chouinard, Steven Gibson and Gabe Gottfried, who updated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located in Topanga, via HAM radio throughout the drill. Whenever he could, Anderson spoke with people about safety and communication, promoting Neighborhood Networks, CERT classes, HAM radio communications and the Topanga Access Card.
“The Topanga Access cards work,” he said. “They worked in the most recent Calabasas fire on Old Canyon, June 4, 2016. It helps emergency workers know you are a current Topanga resident.” (For Topanga Access cards, go to Topangasurvival.org or onetopanga.com). The Access cards are the brainchild of the Topanga Town Council.
Beth Burnham of the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council (ntcfsc.org) displayed the “Ember House,” a small model house that illustrates how flying embers are often the real cause of house fires. To sign up for a free house evaluation, e-mail Firesafe@ntcfsc.org.
“Fifty percent of house fires are ignited by embers,” Burnham said. “The danger never goes away. People should think of brush clearance as gardening, i.e., work that needs to be done every year without stopping.”
Relatively new to the canyon, Jeff Sullivan evacuated with his wife, Andi, and their two children, Shepard, 5, and Tallulah, 2 ½. An animator with DreamWorks, Jeff and his family live at Top O’ Topanga in Zone 1, and felt it was vital to practice their safety plan, this being their first drill.
“My wife and I feel better having the lines of communication open with the community, Alert L.A., Twitter pop-ups, Facebook and T-CEP,” Jeff said.
Resources: Sign up for T-CEP’s Facebook and Twitter (@TCEP90290) and their website at: T-CEP.org. For more information on Neighborhood Networks: email@example.com. To develop an emergency preparedness plan and locate your Topanga Zone Number: TopangaSurvival.wordpress.com/survival-guide.
INCIDENT COMMAND POST AT DIAMOND X RANCH
By Suzanne Guldimann
Emergency responders still had work to complete even after the May 6, Ready! Set! Go! Topanga Drill concluded.
After the evacuation orders for the drill were cleared and the participating residents returned home, fire crews, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department teams, T-CEP—Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, volunteers, and officials that included a representative from Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office and Southern California Edison, gathered at King Gillette Ranch command post for debriefing.
By noon, the usually empty field at Diamond X behind King Gillette Ranch, already hosting two massive mobile emergency support and command trailers and an assortment of support vehicles, was filling up with fire trucks and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department black-and-whites.
Topanga-area Battalion Chief Anthony Williams described the debriefing as an opportunity to discuss what worked and what didn’t work. Williams said the drill met its main objectives, giving emergency responders on the ground real-world practice getting people out of the canyon and crews and equipment in.
“The priority is life, and we rely on the sheriff’s department to evacuate people while we deal with the fire,” he said. “It’s a strong partnership built in active teamwork, and we had great participation.”
Topanga was divided into areas for the drill with different fire crews assigned to each section. The debriefing revealed that while the drill went well and all of the crews were able to access the areas assigned to them, the one major problem experienced throughout the canyon was a lack of radio communication.
Nearly all the fire crews reported what Station 72 Fire Captain Rick Mullen described as communication “dead zones.”
Some teams couldn’t talk to anyone, others found communications patchy.
“Communication is one of the biggest challenges during a real- world event,” said Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station Sergeant Tui Wright, a veteran of numerous local disasters. “It always goes to hell,” he said.
Wright had praise for T-CEP’s Disaster Radio Team (DRT), the group within T-CEP tasked with maintaining emergency radio communications and relaying information. Wright said the volunteer group remained in contact throughout the drill. “We had no issues with them,” he said.
Wright shared another major concern with the Messenger Mountain News before the debriefing. He cautioned that evacuation is the most critical component of a major emergency.
“Topanga has a long history of large numbers of residents refusing to evacuate,” Wright said. “I’d like to remind everyone of how important it is to evacuate when requested and to prepare ahead of time.”
“I couldn’t be happier Topanga was singled out for this drill,” T-CEP Director James Grasso said at the end of the event. He explained that the drill was one of the largest ever in the area.
“I’m extremely pleased with the full county response and amazed at the resources,” he said. “The practice is invaluable for all of us.”
Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station Lt. Jim Royal summed up the drill with two words: “great job,” he said.
More information on T-CEP can be found online at tcep.org.