Saving Ourselves is Complicated

According to California Public Utilities Commission, the bottom wire is hot and belongs to SCE. The wires and cables above belong to telecom systems. Following the Woolsey Fire, the utility undertook a rather drastic tree-trimming around it’s wires along Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

Fire Season officially starts July 12. 

At its June 19 meeting, the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force (TEM) hosted about 30 unique agencies and about as many residents, who filled the library meeting room to capacity as they tried to ferret out their roles and prepare for future emergencies and power shutdowns.

Most welcome were representatives of the utility and telecom companies, including Dan Revetto of AT&T; Patrick Odenthal with Charter Communications/Spectrum; and Verizon’s Jesus Roman; Tom Jacobus and David Ford of SCE; and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) representatives, Alice Stebbins, Executive Director, and Elizaveta Malashenko, Director of Safety & Enforcement. Frontier did not attend.

Among government officials were Janet Turner, representative to Congressman Ted Lieu; Jeff  Toney from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES); Tim Pershing with California Assemblymember Richard Bloom; and Tessa Charnofsky representing Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

“It took a big effort to get everyone to commit, but we did it,” said Ryan Ulyate of the North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council.

James Grasso of TCEP, who is the co-chair of TEM with Jeanne O’Donnell, Director, LA County CEO Office of Emergency Management (OEM), gave a Topanga overview for those not familiar with the area.

“We have densely packed [narrow] roads with a lot of fuel,” Grasso began. “Topanga Canyon Boulevard (TCB)/State Highway 27 and Old Topanga Canyon Road provide very little ingress and egress. Red Flag days combined with our worst-case scenario is a fire [with weather conditions like Woolsey] that starts in the northeast section of Topanga at dirt Mulholland and moves to the beach in 1.5 to two hours. It takes seven hours to evacuate Topanga’s population of 11,000,” he said.

General Dynamics Mission Systems Deployable 4G LTE Cell on Wheels (COW). Photos from General Dynamics

“It’s not a matter of if there will be casualties,” Grasso continued. “We must have an evacuation plan. After that, the biggest challenge is communication. Cell phone use is limited to the Boulevard. Most people have it in their homes and lose all communication. The challenges we are currently facing are serious. How can we get temporary communications up?”

The loss of power during the Woolsey fire, which was not a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event, was on everybody’s mind.  

Questions arose about ramping up cell phone coverage along TCB. Starting with telecom service providers, Spectrum has about six to eight hours backup for their repeaters there and 60 generators in the immediate area of Topanga. AT&T said they have about eight hours backup; Verizon has 42-hour backup generators and has a plan to refuel diesel generators as needed.

“It’s great to see such an educated community,” Tom Jacobus of SCE, said. He explained that SCE has adapted the San Diego Gas & Electric plan that was established about ten years ago. 

“There is no perfect solution,” he said. “We’ve been engaging with telecom companies since May regarding PSPS and how to make this work better. If we can get 72-hour notice, then we can pre-position. We were also told not to depend on Red Flag alerts; it’s too blunt an instrument for our purposes. We’re installing weather stations (about 800) in high-fire areas and improving the wildfire mitigation plan.”

“Here in Topanga, we don’t have extra power,” said Jesus Roman of Verizon. “Collaborating over time, we’re looking to deploy two to three portable generators or COWs (Cell-on-Wheels) in case of PSPS or an actual disaster. That can take up to three years. It’s not a short-term solution.”

Bryce Anderson of TCEP recalled that a few years ago, Topanga was going to get a macro cell tower in town, but a small group objected. “If we work together, we can provide macros,” he said.

“Communications will not work if cables burn during a fire or earthquake. We had none of our systems go down because we had backup power,” Roman said. “This is a dynamic system, a complex of different companies working together.”

Generators can be powered by battery, gas, propane, or solar and can cost up to $10,000.

David Rydman of LA County Public Works, Waterworks District 29, said they have built their own point-to-point system. “We’re able to meet our key demands, we’re increasing our generators, and have solar at all of our tank facilities. It’s not perfect but our biggest battery in an emergency is not dependent on power. The more educated the public is, the easier it is to create.

“The reason we made it through [the Woolsey fire] was because of our relationship with SCE,” Rydman continued. “We mobilized and pre-positioned. Eighty percent of water use is irrigation. If people use water during an emergency just for drinking, we would have two to three days of supply. Edison was a big help in recognizing the issue.”

“We’ve got PGE (Northern CA), So Cal Edison, and San Diego mapping. Mapping is a big push for us,” said Jeff Toney of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “We treat this on a multi-tiered process with emergency management in counties, cities, and local. We have a good GIS [Geographic Information System] in Sacramento so you can [go online] and do it yourself. San Diego Gas & Electric has been the pioneer and we’re all working together with a lot of meetings.

“We liaison with SCE to keep up on these things,” said Toney. “Weather events will affect how we make decisions and pre-position. We work with CAL OES, LA City, LACoFD. Dave Stone is Assistant Chief (OES) for Region 1 (Los Angeles).”

CPUC Executive Director Alice Stebbins stunned attendees when she revealed that telecoms are not required to maintain 9-1-1 emergency access during a disaster. 

“Now that copper landlines are all but abandoned,” said Jane Terjung (, “CPUC needs to write some rules and regulations that require the telecoms to keep our 9-1-1 access reliable.”

A concern arose regarding residents who use medical equipment. A power shutdown could be fatal. Tom Jacobus of SCE said they have a backup plan with a special program for them.

Rosi Dagit, Sr. Biologist for the Resource Conservation District, suggested that “the science needs to be critically mapped. We have four circuits in Topanga. How long does it take to get them up?”

The SCE representative didn’t know the answer, but Grasso suggested 24 hours minimum.

         “If there’s nothing damaged on the circuit,” was the SCE reply.

         “But it has to be activated as quickly as it was de-energized,” Dagit argued.

LA County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Mark Winn said, “We push out as much as we can. We want you to go to AM radio. We’re cultivating those relationships. KNX is the media that reaches out. We will try every way possible up to sending out patrols to neighborhoods. It’s going to be everything we can think of.”

“We are a small community at risk,” said Ulyate. “but we are organized and reasonable and would make a great test case for anything you may want to do. We could create a forum and a dialogue. Can we move this ball forward? Community sirens? Copper landlines? Weather alert radios?”

One final plea from Kent Land Hill representing Topanga Elementary School: “The school has no backup system. Where do we go for resources? Is the fire department engaging with LAUSD regarding safety?” He recommended that Red Flag days be treated like snow days back east: “Keep the children home,” he said.

Time was up and O’Donnell reassured Hill that “We’ll bring that back [another time].


Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at

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