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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At 1:47 P.M., Los Angeles firefighters from Fire Station 96 were first due to the fire, which was one to two acres on arrival, in light to medium fuels with a rapid rate of spread, pushed by 20- to 30-mph winds gusting to 50 mph, classically fierce Santa Ana winds. Additional city fire resources were immediately requested in addition to the first alarm, and the combined first-alarm brush assignments responding from Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The fire conditions were extreme. Within minutes, flames spread beyond the reach of arriving fire units, and by 2:15 P.M. had jumped from the north side of the freeway to the south side, spotting a quarter-mile in front of the head.
The Topanga Fire was out of control, threatening structures and poised to become yet another historic fire directed by Santa Ana winds. First-due city Battalion Commander Pat Stanley recognized the potential of the incident and worked with other responding agencies by establishing a unified command, which ultimately was made up of units from Los Angeles city and county, Ventura County, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) and the National Park Service (NPS). Fire branches and divisions were identified very early in the incident.
The fire, which was spreading south and west into Ventura County had an impressive response assigned to the incident within minutes of the initial report. Strike teams responded from Los Angeles County along with 75 companies from Los Angeles and a greater-alarm assignment from the Ventura County Fire Department, which was also dealing with several other serious brushfires in its jurisdiction.
In less than two hours, the Topanga Fire had extended to more than 500 acres. At 3:45 P.M., the incident commander ordered 35 Type I engine strike teams, 25 Type I hand crew strike teams and a Type I Incident Management Team. This order is only the beginning of the suppression plan being put into place.
The challenge was to protect thousands of homes perched on top of scenic, narrow canyon hillsides, covered by grass and thick native chaparral. The command strategy is to hold the fire south of Highway 126 to the north, west of Valley Circle in the San Fernando Valley and east of Westlake Boulevard in Thousand Oaks and prevent the fire from reaching the Pacific Ocean by holding it north of the 101 Freeway.
The fire continued to spread throughout the afternoon and into the night, with no climate recovery. Strike teams were dispatched from San Diego and San Francisco, 15 engines were sent from Verdugo, and 10 engines from Santa Barbara and across the state. Firefighting resources were mobilized quickly and efficiently, and were well coordinated within hours of the initial alarm. California has practiced the seamless response of mutual aid resources to any point within the state by forward-thinking fire managers who set the foundation of today's incident management system with the creation of "FIRESCOPE" in the early 1970s.
The fire, which raged unabated until the winds subsided during the morning of Sept. 29, burned more than 24,000 acres. The management of the incident was broken into seven geographic branches composed of 24 divisions staffed by 3,000 firefighters, 341 engines, 84 hand crews, 12 dozers, six air tankers and 11 helicopters, all within the 31-mile perimeter of the fire. As weather conditions changed during the morning of Sept. 29, the fire behavior changed from the unmanageable wind-driven fire to a topography-driven fire where fire suppression efforts began gaining control.
As impressive as the response was, the accomplishments were even greater and were not missed even by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he visited the incident base camp. The governor told reporters from across the country that "firefighters are the true heroes." Thousands of residents, more prepared to protect themselves after witnessing the heartache of Hurricane Katrina's victims, followed swift orders directing 17 communities, such as Bell, Box and Woolsey Canyon, to evacuate and advising residents of 16 others to leave. Schools within the fire area were closed for so-called "snow days" as thick white ash coated the populated region. No major injuries resulted from the fire, with the most serious injury received by a city fire captain who was struck in the head by a boulder early the first afternoon. Only two houses were lost, along with a garage, a storage building, several outbuildings and about 50 power poles, whereas similar fires had destroyed hundreds of structures. The governor quickly declared a state of emergency, which was followed by FEMA authorizing federal funds to help pay for the fire's more than $5 million cost of suppression.