TEM Task Force: Preparing for the Next Emergency

A spirited meeting encouraged discussion among Topanga Emergency Management Task Force members as they worked through ideas and concerns to prepare for the fire, flood, or earthquake next time.

Seeking answers and striving to make Topanga a safer place, the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force (TEM) met on the morning of Nov. 13 at Topanga Library to discuss next steps and best practices.

Co-chaired by Jeanne O’Donnell, CEO-Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and James Grasso of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP), the meeting filled the Community Room with members of the public, local organizations, and representatives of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors; Los Angeles County Fire; Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; CHP; and Spectrum; Telecoms Edison, ATT, and Verizon; and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).  

In response to the deadly Woolsey Fire Incident one year ago and at least a dozen fires in Southern California since then, Grasso presented a PowerPoint of findings from the Los Angeles County Final After Action Review of the fire.

The comprehensive 204-page document, published by Citygate Associates, a Folsom, California-based consulting firm, was requested by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, found that emergency responders were unprepared to deal with the extent of the fire that claimed three lives, scorched 151 square miles, destroyed more than 1,643 structures, damaged 364 more, threatened 57,000 structures and caused nearly $5 billion in damages. Furthermore, the Woolsey Fire caused the massive evacuation of more than 250,000 people in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, including Topanga.

“We are in a repetitive fire cycle,” Grasso said. “Topanga is the only area on the corridor that did not burn.”

The final After Action Report, which includes 155 findings and 86 actionable recommendations, is available at lacounty.gov/recovery/report.

The Canyon Sages: Michele Johnson, president of The Canyon SAGES, said there were approximately 529 members in the Canyon and about 40 who do not have e-mail or internet service.

“Of 3,500 seniors in Topanga, outreach to determine who needed help in the case of a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), only 15 have self-reported,” she said. “That gives you an idea of what we are dealing with.”

Johnson expressed concern over how to identify or “red flag” vulnerable or “medical baseline” households, without providing personal or sensitive details, and inform those residents of an evacuation either with door knocks or phone calls and how to get them out quickly, especially those with physical limitations.

With regard to an emergency event, Deputy Mark Winn, EOC Coordinator/ Community Impact Team, Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, said that L.A. County Fire needs to know who is in the house and what their needs are. “Otherwise, it’s a waste of equipment,” he said, to blindly respond to a flagged property. Winn also suggested that those with mobility issues and the elderly, who may need help getting into vehicles, including children, need to be more proactive in the case of an evacuation.

“We on the law side have to be careful of medical information due to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA),” Winn said. “What we’ve been doing for the last couple of years is asking if you need a longer time to load and do you have a caregiver whom we can interest in a Topanga Access Card, so we can track the house based on who has a caregiver card. That’s how that is working.” (canyonsages.com.)

Edison Tree-Trimming. Representing Southern California Edison, Senior Specialist Luis Peraza reported that they have orders to trim about 2,000 trees in the canyon right now and they are working with Caltrans. He explained that Edison is sensitive to the mandated trimming requirements and they need to cut a minimum of four feet plus a year’s growth from around each pole and the power lines.

Peraza also added that Edison gives notifications of tree trimming to each property at least 60 days before the work is scheduled to be done.

“We are achieving greater clearances,” Peraza said. “We have a program to identify different kinds of trees…and are working with L.A. County to get approval for each tree, looking into trees that have certain characteristics, and the trees that define Topanga Canyon.”

Los Angeles County Fire Report. L.A. County Firefighter Steve Cookus reported that there were six fires in the area during October and asked whether Topanga residents felt they were adequately informed.James Grasso reported that he did feel adequately informed about each fire, as did others at the meeting.

L.A. County Fire Chief Michael Brown explained how the department responds to fires in Topanga Canyon, explaining that in the event of a PSPS, they are still working out specific evacuation procedures. He also spoke of concerns about fighting a fire during a PSPS event, saying they need Wi-Fi to be functional throughout the canyon during an emergency event.

“You can’t run a fire without the Internet,” Brown said.

Topanga Animal Rescue. Regarding evacuations, Susan Clark, founder and director of medical/emergency rescue operations and outreach for the non-profit Topanga Animal Rescue, expressed concern about the logistics of evacuating large and small animals during a fire, as well as reaching out to and informing the homeless populations throughout the Canyon in the event of an evacuation.

Alli Acker, team leader of the Equine Emergency Response Team, agreed with Clark and said, “it does take time,” to evacuate livestock from Topanga and noted that most of the animals who sheltered at Pierce College in Woodland Hills during the Woolsey Fire were from Topanga.

For information on pet preparedness: animalcare.lacounty.gov; lacounty.gov/emergency/emergency-survival-guide/.

“No Smoking Signs”. During public comments, a Topanga resident said that the “No Smoking” signage in the canyon was insufficient and expressed concern about people  throwing lit cigarettes out of their vehicles.

“I feel the signs could be updated; they aren’t clear,” she said. “I realize there are citizens who don’t want signs, but I think there is a way to do it,” she said and suggested hand-painted signs that may fit with the ambience of Topanga.

Deputy Winn addressed her concerns, saying that in order to be effective, the signs needed to be official and placed in strategic areas throughout the Canyon.

Retaining Institutional Memory. Susan Nissman, former Senior Field Deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, called on the TEM Task Force to retain its “institutional memory” regarding emergencies, response, evacuation, and after-incident analysis. “In terms of not reinventing the wheel, we have a model right here. This all started in 2002.”

O’Donnell assured Nissman that the information has been preserved, that she has the documents in her computer, and they are being used as the basis of programs statewide.

“We are in conversation with the Sheriff and Fire all the time, but one of the things we are leaving behind is, ‘What happened yesterday,’ and asking, ‘What do we need to do tomorrow.’”


About the Office of Emergency Management: Regarding Topanga and the aftermath of fires and disasters, the Office of Emergency Management has the responsibility of comprehensively planning for, responding to, and recovering from large-scale emergencies and disasters that impact Los Angeles County. OEM’s work is accomplished in partnership and collaboration with first-response agencies, as well as non-profit, private sector, and government partners. Los Angeles County has established various disaster preparedness programs to assist individuals and businesses to prepare for emergencies.n

For more information: lacounty.gov/emergency.

For inquires specific to County education programs, e-mail Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, Office of Emergency Management: Communications@ceooem.lacounty.gov.


TEMTF Mission Statement: The mission of the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force, a partnership of designated public agencies, non-governmental organizations, and community organizations, is to ensure the sustainability of emergency management efforts and strategies for the Los Angeles County unincorporated area of Topanga. 

The Task Force oversees the coordination and communication among governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the community to improve preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery. It will develop, review, and monitor community-based emergency plans, facilitate emergency planning exercises, ensure community involvement and educational outreach, and evaluate and update emergency plans after a disaster.


Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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