Fighting fire with preparation

The community of Topanga Canyon collectively experienced the sensation of tiptoeing past the graveyard after the ’93 Malibu fire and then the ’94 earthquake. A quick look at a road map explains why.

There are a number of residential cul-de-sacs tucked away among the canyons and only two ways out of the remote community. It became obvious during the fast-moving Malibu fire that any emergency requiring the rapid evacuation of Topanga Canyon could easily escalate into a major catastrophe and also that outside help would be awhile getting there.

Instead of hiding their heads in the sand, or depending on the promises of politicians, neighbors formed a volunteer group to address the problem. The nonprofit corporation, Topanga Canyon Emergency Preparedness (T-CEP), was born.

Vice President Fred Feer acted as coordinator of the group drill Saturday. He explained T-CEP’s history, structure and goals. “The point is to get people to look at the problem. It’s not difficult, expensive or complicated. It is frightening. Once you start, though, it leads you to what makes sense. And that’s the idea — doing what makes sense.”

The volunteers are divided into teams to confront different aspects of an emergency. One team runs the “Ops” center, with independent radio communications, a telephone information hotline and psychological counselors.

T-CEP has generated respect among local police, fire and Red Cross agencies. Much of the equipment has been funded by a $20,000 grant awarded with the assistance of L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Shelter volunteers have been trained by the Red Cross to man a 50-person shelter. One unique aspect of T-CEPs problem solving is its reaction to the Red Cross dictum that no pets are permitted into Red Cross shelters. T-CEP recognized some neighbors would not comply with evacuation efforts if it meant abandoning their pets. So it has established a pet shelter adjacent to the people shelter.

Another team specializes in keeping track of the elderly and disabled in the neighborhood, so that in a crisis they would not be overlooked.

Damage assessment teams are also trained by the Red Cross to evaluate damage levels quickly after a disaster. With accurate information, outside agencies can respond faster and with appropriate levels of aid.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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