Saving Topanga

Battalion 5 Fire Chief Drew Smith used a 3D topographical map of Topanga to demonstrate how far and fast embers can travel. The square of paper represents one square mile. Smith explained that embers can travel three miles ahead of the leading edge of a wildfire, easily crossing steep canyons, spreading fire faster than fire crews can travel. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

Battalion 5 Fire Chief Drew Smith said of the Woolsey fire, “The risk was real, the threat was active, but once we had the opportunity and visibility to call in bulldozers and aircraft, we were able to secure the left flank of the fire that threatened to channel down topographically through Monte Nido, to Summit to Summit, and down Old Topanga Canyon.”

Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Drew Smith is a respected fire behavior analyst who has spent years fighting and studying wildfire in the Santa Monica Mountains and throughout Southern California. His work involves assessing temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and fuel load—environmental variables that determine the level of fire risk and can help predict the path of a fire.

It’s not a desk job. Smith was on the front line of the Woolsey Fire. He traveled through the Santa Monica Mountains ahead of the blaze, and sometimes in the middle of it. He recounts stopping with a law enforcement officer to help residents evacuate, and staying to protect livestock, including a pair of camels, while the fire passed through. “We watered them down with hoses,” he said. After the rescue he guided the law enforcement officer out of the area, driving across fallen power lines and past burning poles. “I told her to follow me and not to get out of her vehicle until we were through,” he said, during an interview with the Messenger Mountain News.

Smith addressed a number of concerns raised during and in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire.

He explained that the main concern during a wildfire is safety and preserving life. He’s an advocate for evacuating early. “You may feel disappointment over the loss of property, but you will be alive to feel it,” he said.

The Woolsey Fire is still the subject of a county assessment. Smith was not able to discuss anything that is expected to be reviewed as part of that process, but he spoke in general terms about the risk Topanga faced during the disaster.

Smith demonstrated with a solid terrain model of Topanga Canyon by folding a paper to represent one square mile of land to show how an ember can travel three of those squares, leaping across the rugged and steep terrain as easily as a child playing hopscotch. He explained that “ember cast” is a nightmare for firefighters, because the wind can carry embers far faster than fire crews can follow, setting whole new areas on fire.

Using the map, he showed how easily embers from the Woolsey Fire could potentially have traveled into Old Canyon if the wind had changed direction.

“We were concerned that when the Santa Ana winds dropped, the returning onshore flow could drive the fire into Topanga,” he said.

The sky might have been blue overhead in the Canyon and the front line of the fire out of sight, but the risk was real and the evacuation remained in place for as long as the threat was active.

Smith used the 3D map to illustrate how Topanga’s steep terrain increases the fire risk. “Fire travels faster up slope than down,” Smith said. “The steeper the slope, the faster the fire moves.”

He explained that as the heat of the fire rises, it preheats the air and fuel upslope through convection and radiant heat, speeding combustion, and enabling a wildfire to potentially roar up steep areas like Hondo Canyon or Saddle Peak in minutes.

If the fire burns the types of fuel that generate embers it can travel even faster—the flying debris carrying live flame ahead of the wildfire.

“Mature vegetation fuels the dynamic fuel cycle,” Smith explained. “It also generates the embers that spread the fire. There are different fire dynamics based on the  moisture levels in vegetation. Dry vs. green. Dry fuels are receptive to embers, which can travel three miles during a fast-moving fire. Topanga is five miles to the ocean.” Fire can travel across the terrain from Topanga to the sea in 50 minutes.

Smith is passionate about the importance of fuel management—whether it is clearing brush manually, with heavy equipment, or with the aid of goats or other grazing animals. His focus is on reducing fire fuel loads and creating defensible space.

While dead brush, “ladder fuels” like grasses, twigs, and leaf litter are the major vectors for fire in the local mountains, even relatively fire resistant  green plants will catch fire if they have dead leaves or branches to act as kindling, or if the fire burns hot enough and humidity is low.

The list of potential fuel sources of a wildfire include patio furniture, hammocks, shade sails, and umbrellas…even pool noodles. Simply storing those items in the garage, or moving them away from the house during red flag fire-risk episodes could help prevent tragedy.

Embers can get inside of a structure through unscreened vents, open windows, or even an open pet door. Smith recommends that all Topanga residents assess their fire risk and harden their homes by covering openings with metal screening and identifying all potential fuel sources.

Smith’s job may be complicated but his advice isn’t: clear brush, make sure property is as ember-proof as possible, and evacuate early—advice that is especially urgent for the elderly, disabled, and anyone having to move large animals.

“No one was ever harmed by evacuating early,” he said. Especially in a place like Topanga, where steep slopes and rugged terrain that hasn’t burned in decades could fuel a fire that can move faster than emergency responders.

Smith will be at the Topanga Emergency Preparedness Fair on May 5, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Topanga Community Center.

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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