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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Without question the fire was spectacular, both in nature and in response. State law was changed after the fires in 2003, when many lives and thousands of structures were lost, and this proved valuable. Defensible space required by law gives property owners the responsibility to maintain 100 feet of clearing around structures. The effectiveness of firefighters on the ground supported by firefighting aircraft above was demonstrated by the results. Hundreds of homes dotting long canyons survived, as firefighters saved house after house, with flames burning right up to the clearings provided by homeowners.

The sight of completely blackened hillsides dotted with undamaged houses is not unbelievable, but demonstrates the effectiveness of the combined efforts of the residents and firefighters to become fire-safe. By property owners clearing brush in the interface communities, firefighters can accomplish their objective. It is only appropriate that on the night of Sept. 29, the last stand for firefighters on the Topanga Fire was at Los Angeles County Fire Station 125 on Las Virgenes Road, as the fire threatened the station and the south side of the 101 Freeway. The forward progression of the Topanga Fire was stopped at the 101 Freeway by firefighters holding the line and preventing the fire from marching to the Pacific Ocean.

On Friday, Oct. 7, transition of command from CDF Incident Management Team 7 back to local government agencies was completed.


Keith D. Cullom, a Firehouse correspondent, is a captain and public information officer for the Santa Barbara County, CA, Fire Department, where he has served since 1972. He also is a freelance writer and photographer, covering firefighting topics. Cullom is a member of the International Association of Fire Photographers (IFPA).