TCEP: Before the Bad Thing Happens

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Wildfire. If you’ve never met one, you don’t want to. What you do want is to be prepared for the certainty that a fire, earthquake or flood will happen. Meet the dedicated volunteers of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness ( and learn how to even the odds.

It’s fire season and, in case you haven’t noticed, the Red Flags are flying—up north and south of us in Orange County—but also here in Los Angeles County.

We have been fortunate in our local mountains. Most of the recent fires have been on low-wind days, but the Santa Anas are blowing, the brush is dry, and humidity is low; the perfect formula for a bad fire day.

Many of us who have lived in Topanga for a while remember the 1993 wind-driven fire that burned for 10 days from the top of Old Topanga Canyon to the coast in Malibu destroying more than 300 homes, scorching thousands of acres, and taking the lives of three people.

Realizing that inaccurate information went out during the ’93 firestorm, a group of volunteers, led by Pat and John Mac Neil, Gabrielle Lamirand, Fred Feer and Susan Nissman (who, a year later, became Senior Field Deputy to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky), created the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP) with a “mission to give enough accurate and verified information to help you make smart decisions and possibly save your life.”



Last year, Topanga was threatened by the Old Fire in Calabasas that burned up to, but not over the Summit at the north end of the canyon. Zone by zone, sheriffs and firefighters went door to door warning people to evacuate; some were voluntary others were mandatory.

This year, over the Fourth of July weekend, the Old Fire at PCH burned 55 acres on a steep grade with heavy vegetation that hadn’t burned for 100 years. Had it not been for the air support from Topanga’s 69 Bravo Heliport, firefighters and ground crews, it could have rampaged through the Palisades and Topanga State Park.

On September 9, there were three brush fires threatening Topanga and Malibu, two at Pacific Coast Highway at Rambla Pacifico and Corral Canyon, that Fire Station 69 was responding to when another blaze, the Powderhorn Road Fire, caused by a downed power line (see “It’s a Bad Day for Fires,” Vol. 1, No. 18, September 22, 2017), started at a residence. It was held at bay, mostly with shovels by residents who were trained members of TCEP, until Engine 269, Topanga’s volunteer Call Firefighters, on duty at the station house, responded.

For those who have recently moved to Topanga—for its beauty, its closeness to nature, solitude, the view—there’s a learning curve to understanding that you live in a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) that is designated a “Very Severe Fire Hazard” zone.

The mantra is: Prepare!

“Think of preparation, not as a chore, but insurance,” says TCEP Chair Scott Ferguson. “When you take out insurance on your car, it’s not because you know you’ll have an accident. Meanwhile, if you do, then you know you’re covered. It’s the same with being prepared for a disaster.”

“We’ve been lucky,” he says. “All of the fires we’ve had so far happened on low-wind days. It’s dangerous to live here,” he says. “Be responsible and take steps to live here safely. When you are warned to evacuate, leave! Better yet, get out early. It’s the difference between living and dying.”



Soon, residents will receive the L.A. County “Disaster Survival Guide,” an invaluable resource for creating and maintaining a fire-safe environment in the WUI. It has everything you need to know, and do, to prepare and prevent.

Published by the Topanga Emergency Management (TEM) Task Force, it is co-chaired by the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), TCEP, L.A. County Fire Department, L.A. Sheriff’s Department, Animal Care and Control and Southern California Edison (SCE).

Even now, while we prepare for the holidays, the TEM Task Force is preparing for the annual emergency drill next spring when all county agencies, their educational staff and everyone involved in emergency planning will provide the community a time and place to practice their skills.

In between emergencies, TCEP volunteers are eager to host community meetings for hands-on training sessions. For instance, TCEP held a successful meeting with SAGES seniors to help them set up their phones with emergency contacts. It also oversees the Neighborhood Networks and urges everyone to contact TCEP to set one up in their area.

TCEP also encourages people to have multiple lines of communication. When your land line doesn’t work, you can send texts on your mobile phone. Add the PulsePoint app on your mobile phone for updates. During emergencies, TCEP pushes out information on Twitter, Facebook, and its Hotline. Keep a battery or solar radio at hand and tune in to KNX for updates.

The more people who know what’s going on, the easier it is on the first responders—those professionals on the front lines fighting the fires, providing EMT services, evacuation warnings and traffic control to keep access open to emergency vehicles.

In case of evacuation, and TCEP volunteers have to evacuate, they have a fully equipped mobile EOC communications van and will soon have a 24-foot mobile trailer that will be stationed at the Incident Command Post during an emergency.

Ferguson notes that “LA County Fire Department (LACoFD) views TCEP as an example of how citizens can create an organization that helps first responders push out information during an emergency.”



  • Be aware that you have a responsibility to yourself and the community.
  • Study the “Disaster Survival Guide” and make a Family Emergency Plan for yourself, your family and pets.
  • When in doubt, Get out! Evacuate early for two reasons: to avoid last-minute gridlock with no chance of escape and to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles.
  • Become a volunteer in any one of the prevention, preparedness and emergency response teams.



In TCEP, residents can find a volunteer team that matches their interests and concerns so they are ready to respond to a specific aspect of a disaster. The average tenure of a volunteer is three years but TCEP has members who have been with it for five, seven and 20 years. That is a tremendous amount of experience for a volunteer organization and probably why they’re so good at what they do.

  • TCEP Hotline Team—operates the T-CEP hotline “rumor control” telephone bank and gathers and disseminates accurate information to the community during an emergency. (310) 455-3000
  • TCEP Logistics—responsible for keeping the EOC up and running and keeps a record of residents with special talents and equipment that could come in handy during a disaster i.e. tractors, chainsaws, welders, four-wheel drives, etc.
    • Disaster Radio Team (DRT)is a group within T-CEP that focuses on communications during an emergency. Volunteers are licensed and trained in communications, essential during an emergency. ( 
      • Family Radio Service (FRS)—DRT demonstrated that FRS radios could be a useful tool to keep Topanga residents informed during an emergency in several important ways:
      • Radio Classes—Norm Goodkin at for ongoing certification and training in the use of HAM radios. (


  • Neighborhood Network (NN)— A group of residents in a geographically close area who have agreed to share contact information, special skills and equipment so everyone can stay informed and help support each other in the event of a wildfire, earthquake or flood. 


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North Topanga Canyon Fire Safe Council (NTCFSC)— The Fire Safe Councils in Topanga mobilize the community to protect homes, businesses and environment from wildfires and provides free home evaluations to help homeowners identify potential fire dangers around their homes.

  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)— Volunteers serve as emergency first responders and provide support to Los Angeles County Sheriff and Los Angeles County Fire personnel during and after major disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes and floods. The team also helps to educate the public on emergency preparedness.
  • Arson Watch—Under the direction and supervision of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Arson Watch volunteers from Malibu, Topanga, Agoura Hills and Calabasas patrol over 185 square miles of the Santa Monica Mountains during periods of extreme fire weather conditions.
  • Red Cross Shelter Team is responsible for opening and managing a Red Cross approved emergency shelter. 800-733-2767.
  • Pet Team offers information to prepare your pets for an emergency and free computer chipping to trace a lost animal. Emergency Pet Information
  • L.A. County Equine Response Team—helps local neighborhoods establish an evacuation plan for large animals in the event of a disaster.


A Cautionary Tale from Topanga’s History

When Civil Defense Became Disaster Defense. In 1946, well after WWII was over and the Topanga Protection Committee became the Topanga Disaster Committee, it responded once to a fire in 1949. In August of 1956, it was reactivated as a unit of the Civil Defense organization and the Topanga Canyon Basin was divided into six sectors with volunteers who could be called upon in time of disaster.

The first test of the new procedures was during a major fire in Malibu, December 27-30, 1956…. Around 6 p.m., [Topanga] did not seem threatened, but as a precaution, the sectors were alerted. At about 9 p.m., a “Sig-Alert” bulletin on the radio stated that the sheriff had ordered evacuation of Topanga Canyon. This was later found to have been an error, but as William H. Barrett reported, “The evacuation of Fernwood proceeded under what amounted to panic conditions.”

While trying to evacuate, there was a period of approximately one hour, Barrett reported, “during which all of Fernwood Pacific Drive and lower Topanga Canyon Boulevard were blocked solid with traffic and it would have been virtually impossible for fire equipment to have traveled into the precinct from the south or up Fernwood Pacific Drive….” For two hours, telephone communications both in and out of the canyon broke down completely. By midnight 500 to 700 people had evacuated Fernwood. The following night…, “the wind had shifted and the canyon was again put on alert, but by December 29, the danger was past.”

Variations of this scenario in which officials act without consulting local volunteer organizations repeated many times in the course of emergencies and supposed emergencies. In the 1990s, after years of such confusion, as a response to this lack of organization and preparedness, TCEP was born.


Excerpted from “The Topanga Story—Expanded Edition”


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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