The Topanga Fire

Dec. 1, 2005
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 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.

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.

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).

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