Benefit performance to support firefighting research organization

Photos by Dave Lichten A P-3 air tanker drops retardant on a fire line.

All proceeds from the play, “The Guys,” to be performed Sept. 10 in Topanga Canyon, will go to the Wildfire Research Network.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

More than 11,000 homes have been lost to wildfires in California over the past four decades. This staggering statistic alone is one reason for the benefit performance of “The Guys,” starring Wendie Malick and Dan Lauria, a play honoring firefighters lost in the 9/11 disaster, scheduled for Sept. 10 in Topanga Canyon.

Every cent of the proceeds will go to support the Wildfire Research Network, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to improving wildfire suppression capability throughout the United States.

WRN was founded by Topanga Canyon resident Tony Morris, a freelance journalist. After the disastrous Topanga/Malibu fire of 1993 during which he had to evacuate his home, he met with a group of neighbors to discuss the impact of the fire and find out why the county’s helicopters and firefighters were unable to stop it on Old Topanga Canyon Road when it was confined to a few acres. They formed a grass roots research group to learn about firefighting aircraft being used to fight wildfires in Canada, Europe and Australia.

Bob Cavage, an aeronautical systems engineer who almost lost his home to a wildfire in 1978 which, he said, “got my attention big time,” heard Morris address a group of homeowners in Pacific Palisades some time later and was impressed by his work. Today Cavage, now retired, is president of WRN and works closely with Morris.

Headquartered in Morris’ modest home, the tiny but increasingly influential group admits to a formidable, but absolutely vital, four-point mission: to research phenomena and promote improved methods for the control of wildfires; provide information and recommendations for better wildfire suppression to the public, private enterprise and all levels of government; explore innovative partnerships and financial strategies to accelerate improvements; and to facilitate establishment of a national wildfire research institute with the responsibility, authority and resources to bring final resolution to the nation’s wildfire control issues.

“The trouble is there’s no single agency-local, state or national-that can address the problems,” Cavage said. “It’s a matter of focus and putting the money there. It has to be national, but guided by a board of directors at local, state and federal levels.”

The idea to stage a performance of “The Guys” as a benefit for WRN came to actress Wendie Malick, also a Topanga Canyon resident, when she got to know Morris at a local coffee shop. Malick had acted in the play previously and became friends with the author, Anne Nelson, who insisted that part of the proceeds from every performance go to local firefighters.

“This is such a beautiful piece,” Malick said, “it’s not just about 9/11, but at this time of year it reminds us of how invaluable firefighters are. We who live in the Santa Monica Mountains know this all too well; we’re all aware that they are underfunded.

“When I met Tony, who was looking for ways to raise funds, I thought this was a perfect opportunity,” she continued. “So I suggested we put on this play right in Topanga and make people here and in Malibu aware of WRN because it’s certainly something that will serve all of us.”

Tough and underfunded as the battle seems to be, WRN has made an impact with its efforts and is making progress, and not just alone. The organization networks with local, county, state and federal agencies throughout California: the U.S. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho; air tanker pilots and owner/operators; wildfire researchers in academia and the federal government; broadcast and print media, and homeowners associations.

In one of its technical programs, WRN has been researching and promoting the use of night vision goggles, long used by the military, for nighttime aerial firefighting. Night firefighting capability is productive, Morris said, as fires tend to die down somewhat in lower nighttime temperatures and generally diminished winds.

In a measure of WRN’s success, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and San Diego Fire and Rescue are now trained and equipped with night vision goggles, and thus are the only fire agencies in the U.S. able to fight wildfires at night. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, with a firefighting fleet of 46 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, have no night firefighting capability, Morris said. Last year, WRN began discussing the use of night vision goggles with the aviation manager of CDF. The agency’s director, Ruben Grijalva, has since announced that all new helicopters acquired by CDF henceforth will be equipped with night vision goggle systems.

“Another of the technical issues not being addressed is that we’re not attacking the fires soon enough with enough effective resources,” Cavage said.

In this area, WRN is actively promoting the development and use of two wide-bodied jet supertankers. Converted in private ventures, a DC-10 with a capacity of 12,000 gallons of fire retardant and a 747 with 20,000 gallons will dramatically improve the effectiveness of aerial firefighting. The largest current tankers have a maximum capacity of only 3,000 gallons.

“With these huge capacities they’ll be capable of attacking the head of a fire,” Cavage said. “No other tankers can do this. Hitting the head of a fire will make a significant difference from just dropping retardant around the edges.”

While most of its efforts concern improving the technical capabilities and equipment of the firefighting agencies, WRN acknowledges that the public must face its share of the responsibility for the increasing number, size and destructiveness of wildfires.

“More and more people insist on living in the trees. The wildlife/urban interface, in the beautiful wooded, forested areas,” Morris said. “I do myself. The views are spectacular, many of the homes are spectacular, but the infrastructure that serves these communities is often sub-par, with two-lane roads that make it a challenge for firefighters to get there in time to do what they have to do.

“The public has sort of an obligation to be partners with the fire departments. That means brush clearance, making their homes safe against fires. You’d be surprised how many people still either don’t get that message or have a hard time complying with it. There are so many things in and around a house that can burn. A house can actually be fuel to a wildfire.

“You can’t ask the fire department to do everything and be everywhere. People have to do more for themselves.”

The benefit performance of “The Guys,” will take place Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m. at the Topanga Community House, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered by mail with a check for $25 to Wildfire Research Network, 415 Topanga Canyon Blvd. #190, Topanga, CA 90290 or by e-mail: Tickets are also available at Mimosa Cafe, 395 S. Topanga Cyn. Blvd., Pat’s Topanga Grill, 1861 N. Topanga Cnyn. Blvd. and Water Lily Cafe, 120 S. Topanga Cnyn. Blvd.