The Topanga Fire

Keith Cullom reports on a local wildland disaster that put the California mutual aid response system to the test and stretched the capabilities of three major fire departments.


Firefighters across Southern California - frequent responders to disasters at home and abroad - were tested when disaster struck in September 2005. Hundreds of firefighters from the Los Angeles basin responded to the unprecedented need for assistance after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf...


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Firefighters across Southern California - frequent responders to disasters at home and abroad - were tested when disaster struck in September 2005.

Hundreds of firefighters from the Los Angeles basin responded to the unprecedented need for assistance after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast area as members of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams and National Incident Management Teams. Before the month ended, even as some of the regional resources continued to perform in the Gulf, a local wildland disaster put the California mutual aid response system to the test and stretched the capabilities of three major fire departments.

As with the power of a hurricane, Mother Nature has a long-documented history of producing strong and destructive winds in Southern California. These "Santa Ana winds" are hot winds, pushed at tremendous velocity, from the eastern deserts, compressing through the mountain ranges reaching to the Pacific Coast, and too often mix with fire to leave disastrous results for people living in their path.

Early in the last week of September, weather forecasters warned of the winds. Fire departments prepared to pre-deploy resources, increase staffing and alert citizens in the region of the increased fire danger. Fire officials had been working all summer to educate interface residents by repeatedly reminding them that the near-record rains last winter had created thick growths of brush and presented conditions favorable for a severe fire season.

Once the winds began to blow, it didn't take long for firefighters to recognize that they were in for a fight, with high-wind warnings for the majority of the Southland for winds of 40 to 50 mph and gusts to 75 mph.

At 3:54 A.M. on Sept. 28, with warm winds reaching 40 mph, a fire was reported in the brush on Brown's Canyon Road north of the 118 Freeway near the western edge of the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles County, and near the Ventura County line. Firefighters arrived to 35 acres of brush burning in rugged terrain and immediately called for a major emergency response to stop the spread of the fire before structures also became part of the immediate problem. The Los Angeles County Fire Department sent a second-alarm assignment and additional strike teams assisted by 33 fire companies from the Los Angeles Fire Department as well as units from Ventura County.

The massive response directed by a unified command contained the spread of the fire to 125 acres in just 2- hours, with mop-up expected to continue throughout the day. Residents in the West Valley appreciated the firefighting efforts and began their Wednesday morning just as any other. The winds continued to increase.

As the C platoon of the Los Angeles Fire Department reported to work on the morning of Sept. 28, San Fernando Valley fire companies were exchanging crews. Many of these companies exchanged in the field as relief companies reporting to the earlier fire. At 7:51 A.M., a fire reported in the Van Nuys Airport area of the valley quickly escalated to a "Major Emergency Incident." Twenty-two fire companies and more than 100 firefighters under the direction of Assistant Chief Curtis James battled a fire in a 50-by-200-foot building housing a commercial woodworking business and a window covering outlet. Valley firefighters were heavily committed on incidents early in their shift; but the real workout was soon to begin.

In the early afternoon, fire companies from the Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and Ventura County fire departments all dispatched their standard wildland response to the report of a brushfire on the 118 Freeway at Topanga Canyon Road, in the general area of the earlier Brown's Canyon Fire. This area has a long and destructive history of major wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres in a populated interface area. With a fuel bed that stretches from the north edge of the San Fernando Valley south for 25 miles to the Pacific Ocean along the coast in Malibu, fire is always a concern for firefighters. Recent notable fires in the area were the 12,512-acre Calabasas Fire in 1996 and the 107,570-acre Simi Fire two years ago. When responding fire units report smoke showing from these hills, everyone pays attention.

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