I stopped at the Topanga Fire Station a couple of weeks ago. One of the firemen there told me that 90 percent of homes that catch fire and burn down are caused by blowing embers. The embers go in the chimney or the air vents to the attic or under the house. After several hours your house is on fire.
I bought a roll of window screen, put three layers together and covered all the vents and chimneys on my roof. You might suggest that to your readers. Or better yet have a contest to see who can come up with the best Idea for fire prevention.
Lessons for Topanga from the Paradise Fire
In the face of the fire that outpaced Paradise’s evacuation effort, the government utterly failed. At the core was a complete failure of fair warning to the citizens of Paradise, many of whom paid for government incompetence with their lives.
Topanga take notice.
What happened in Paradise can happen here. Paradise “sits on a hilltop and is hemmed in by canyons with only four narrow winding routes to flee [to] safety,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2018, p. 1 (from which this article is derived). As was initially the case with Topanga in the Woolsey fire, in Paradise the evacuation was initially done on a sector-by-sector basis.
That sounds like Topanga but the practical evacuation routes are probably not more than three: Topanga Canyon Blvd., Old Topanga, and going up to Saddle Peak through Fernwood. In the face of a firestorm does anyone really believe that getting 13,000 residents and horse trailers out of Topanga through Topanga Canyon Boulevard, or up to Saddle Peak’s connecting roads will work on a sector-by-sector basis unless adequate warning is given?
This proved to be folly in Paradise as the fire moved too fast, trapping citizens in their burning homes and cars. By the time a full-scale evacuation was ordered, the fire was already consuming the town.
In Paradise, many citizens never got warnings by phone, even though they had a phone system called CodeRed that covers both landlines and cellphones voluntarily submitted by residents, but not all residents registered with CodeRed, which, in any case, could only reach so many phones per hour. Many had to rely on neighbors and warnings from the police using loudspeakers—a system destined for failure if a firestorm is approaching. Some relied on texting, also a hit-or-miss proposition.
Topanga’s warning system is worse as in the Woolsey Fire where Edison turns off the power because of wind or fire. The power goes off. Nothing works and there is no communication. Even if one can call the TCEP hotline, the information was out of date most of the time, and at the beginning differed from the Fire Department which, itself, was frequently unable to provide up-to-date information. A very friendly and sympathetic “not our department” was a frequent refrain.
What can we do to protect Topanga from a disaster like Paradise?
- I suggest one technology that can provide adequate warning: Air Raid Sirens that can be heard throughout the canyon. At one time, there was a watchtower at the top of Saddle Peak, where, assuming the government is willing to purchase sirens, they could create a command post. Arson Watch, the Fire Department, and ordinary citizens could call into the watchtower, sirens can wail continuously for total immediate evacuation, or punctuated with blasts for more subtle directions.
- Since a firestorm could not be slowed in time by bringing up fire equipment, Topanga Canyon Blvd. South should be turned into a one-way exit. The Fire Station 69 Captain, not the Sheriff’s or Police Department would make the call.
- Topanga has the advantage of oak savannahs that can slow fires, although embers can fly over the oak belts. However, the creation and maintenance of fire breaks adjacent to oak savannahs could help create fire lines along the North end of Fernwood and perhaps along the Western boundary of Topanga State Park.
- Build fire bunkers, much like the underground storm shelters one still finds in areas such as Kansas. Several large shelters could be ordered in bulk by the government and built along Topanga Canyon Boulevard and other strategic locations as a last resort in case the fire [threatens to] overcome citizens trying to escape. Perhaps a bond issue could finance some of the cost, certainly for the large shelters.
- In the 1993 fire, the electric pumps at the top of Saddle Peak were turned off, which led to a draining of the storage tanks, leaving areas without water in the water mains. In the Woolsey fire, apparently generators were brought in to assure that the pumping would continue. If it is not already the case, back-up generators need to be put into these tank emplacements, so they automatically go on in case the power is turned off again, or as in 1993, the power lines and poles burn.
“Are we next?” It does not have to be so.
—Steven Pollard, Topanga Resident since 1982.