Valley fires set

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Malibu on alert

The Santa Anas are blowing again, keeping Malibu residents and city and public safety officials on alert for signs of smoke.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu residents are on the edge after last week’s Topanga/Chatsworth fire burned more than 24,000 acres and caused the skies to darken with ash, which made its way through the canyons and caused the sun over the ocean to glow an eerie, blood-red color.

With forecasts for major Santa Ana winds to blow this week, the worry holds. However, most of the 2,800 firefighters from across California who fought the Topanga/Chatsworth fire are being held in reserve until at least Friday, waiting for this week’s predicted dry, 50 mile-per-hour winds.

This week’s winds are expected to be much stronger than last week.

“Those [last week] were good Santa Ana winds, but they didn’t last very long,” said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Kurt Schaefer at the fire’s incident command post in Thousand Oaks.

The fire, named after its ignition point at Topanga Canyon Boulevard near the 118 Freeway, was 95 percent contained Tuesday, having consumed 24,175 acres at a cost of $12.5 million to extinguish.

The biggest concern last week for firefighters was that the fire did not leap the 101 Freeway near Las Virgenes Canyon Road-the 1993 fire that burned Malibu, began on the other side of the hill and, uncontrolled, swept its way across the Santa Monica Mountains, destroying more than 350 homes.

In Malibu, the city’s Emergency Operations Center was activated for two days. City Council member Jeff Jennings, monitoring the situation, said his biggest concern was getting up-to-date maps of burned areas from the state.

“That is always what we seem to be missing,” he said.

No roads or schools in Malibu were closed, although the evacuation of several large apartment complexes in Las Virgenes Canyon caused some displacement at Pepperdine University.

“I bumped into four students from up there who had no place to go” said Pepperdine senior Laura Cook, of Solon, Ohio.

“We took them to our apartment and set them up with sleeping bags and pillows,” she said.

The Topanga Fire, coupled with another fire north of Simi Valley two years ago, may have relieved some major fire dangers for the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu. James Woods, a fire historian and geographer at Long Beach State University, says last week’s fire “is a giant 24,000-acre fire break up north of Malibu.”

Woods has charted the course of numerous fires that have started in the Santa Susanna Pass area and, carried by strong Santa Anas, burned to the ocean in less than a day. The ignition point for that so-called chimney has been neutralized for this year, he said.

“But the danger area is always south of the 101,” he noted. “That area wasn’t touched yet.”

Topanga resident Dave Lichten, a volunteer with Arson Watch, agreed: “Whatever hasn’t burned is going to burn. Even though this one was stopped at the 101 Freeway, right now the entire Santa Monica Mountains area is threatened.”

Echoing previous concerns are complaints that the city is not prepared for another big fire. Complaints of not being able to receive timely updates from the city or its Web site about where the fire was heading, whether to prepare for evacuation, etc. reverberate those after the 2003 Trancas fire that burned 750 acres and damaged three homes on Jan. 6.

After that fire, resident Marshall Thompson expressed concern about not getting the kind of information residents needed during the fire, particularly about traffic.

“What we needed was an hourly update,” Thompson said.

This time around, complaints were that very little Malibu-specific information was given by City Hall on its Web site or city news channel, and that any information listed was not updated regularly-a first posting on Thursday was at 7:25 a.m. and the next was listed nearly 12 hours later, at 7:45 p.m. City Manager Katie Lichtig said verifiable information was not obtainable between those times and that the city did not use unverifiable information as to not cause unnecessary panic. She did admit, talking to The Malibu Times Publisher Karen York, that the city’s television channel, 34, and the city’s Web content needs to be improved.

However, the city did utilize its emergency phone tree. All publicly listed phone numbers, and numbers listed with the city, were called last Wednesday, notifying residents of the fire in the Valley and to be on alert. (Unlisted numbers cannot be called unless the resident registers with the city’s phone tree list.)

Also, the local Sheriff’s station deployed deputies to cruise Malibu and alert residents in sensitive areas about evacuation.

Malibu resident, LaRae Sevier, also an employee of The Malibu Times, who lives near Decker Canyon Road and Mulholland Highway, said deputies came by and informed Sevier and her family of their options if they received a phone call to evacuate. They were told that if they decided to stay and the fire came through the canyon, they would not be able to get out. However, if they decided to leave, they would not be able return to their home for at least two days. The deputies also gave information on how to dress if the fire did come through and they were outside-to make sure their bodies, including hair, were completely covered. The deputies also asked if needed, firefighters could hook up to the 12,000-gallon water reserve tank that sits on the property. Sevier’s uncle, John Garner, who has lived there for 27 years, gave permission. Garner has lived through threat of fire, including the 1993 fire, during his time in Malibu. His home was saved then because of the water reserve, which is fed by a well.

The ability to protect so many homes from last week’s fire was due, in great part, to brush clearance measures homeowners have taken, fire officials said.

Marty O’Toole, the fire suppression officer for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said, “The real reasons for the success here is the defensible space work that the homeowners have done here.”

“It was good brush clearance that saved all those houses,” Schaefer said. “We took an aerial tour and it was just amazing, particularly in Bell Canyon, to see all the houses saved by their defendable spaces.”

Three houses were burned, but thousands were saved in three days and nights of firefighting. Three commercial structures at the old Rocketdyne test center in the Santa Susanna Mountains burned, and one firefighter was injured when a boulder fell on him.

Officials overseeing the coordinated effort pointed to the centralized command and control of the firefighters that was in effect. Assemblymember Fran Pavley, who was among those evacuated from her Liberty Canyon neighborhood, took pains to emphasize that.

“I got phone calls from people all [Wednesday] night, and the main question was, ‘is somebody in charge?'” she said. “The answer is yes, this was not Katrina.”