Saturday morning, I was riding my mountain bike with a friend in Topanga State Park. It was cool, drizzle dotted the windshield and we smelled smoke as I parked the car above Entrada. Loving the smell of a fireplace on a cool moist day, I was thinking, “How nice.” But as we hit the trail up to the Hub, the smell became stronger. It was obviously a fire. Halfway up we reached a point where one could look down into the Palisades Highlands. A police chopper circled and then we saw LAFD birds. But the wind was still and the smoke was rising straight up. I wondered if this was a prescribed burn. Certainly conditions were perfect, with high humidity and no wind. Recovering from the climb, we passed the Hub on the trail toward Will Rogers and found an overlook to view the fire from a side angle. More than one water dropping helicopter was attacking pockets of denser smoke, but we did not see flames. The fire seemed to be in more than one location, which seemed odd since no embers were blowing. We watched as the pilots made one precision water drop after another. By the time we returned home we heard it was arson and fires had been intentionally set. Later in the afternoon the ocean wind came up, though not especially strong. But the chaparral hadn’t burned in 50 years. The terrain was more or less unworkable for ground crews and by evening the fire had spread. Topanga was evacuated and the canyon closed. The fire is still burning Sunday evening as I write this. Zero containment.
Dear Mayor Grisanti and council: This is another wakeup call to us. This is not the typical Santa Ana wind driven blaze in near-zero humidity. This fire is fuel driven. The message is clear: We must reduce the fuel load. I know some say that reducing the fuel is ineffective and impacts the animals we want to protect. But refusing reality and not being willing to trim even a single tree like many of these folks want is indefensible.
We are seeing the result of that approach play out right now under the most favorable conditions short of rain. In such favorable conditions, when small prescribed burns are done by fire experts, the larger animals escape. With no wind to drive a fire (and provide additional Oxygen) a fire burns at a lower temperature. Consequently chaparral root systems are not killed as in a wind-driven wildland fire. When those roots die, they release huge amounts of water from the hillsides, further hindering regrowth. Fire prone grasses pop up the next spring, making it difficult for new chaparral to take hold. (Once the 1993 Old Topanga fire was extinguished, Topanga creek had a foot of water running in it from all the water released by the chaparral roots that had died).
The fuel load surrounding Eastern Malibu is extreme. Drive over Stunt road into the Valley to Mulholland, or take Piuma to Las Virgenes. Look across Las Flores Canyon from Rambla Paicfico at Big Rock. While reducing this fuel will not eliminate wildland fires, if we ignore what can be done and follow the prescriptions of the two scientists at the Chaparral Institute and those who oppose any fuel mitigation – and who influenced Sheila Kuehl last year to stop Governor Newsome’s planned prescribed burn above Big Rock, the fire that wipes out Eastern Malibu will be on us. Please listen to the fire experts like Captain Smith.