TOPANGA, Calif .– The stockade fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate on the outskirts of Los Angeles last month has never approached James Grasso’s home. But he watched it intently from the peaks of Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, with his emergency radios and pagers by his side.
Mr. Grasso, 60, volunteer doctor and assistant director in the film industry, sits on the Topanga Council on Emergency Preparedness. A long time ago, he hardened his house, eliminating all growth within a hundred yards of his house. Last year, he fitted an all-terrain UTV with a 75 gallon water pump called a skid unit. And he has a cinder block bunker full of emergency supplies.
“I love living here, but I quickly realized that no one else would save me,” Mr. Grasso said.
If Mr. Grasso is some kind of fire-maker, his neighbor Rose Wiley, 89, is among those trying not to worry too much.
Ms Wiley lives in a modest house hidden behind a magenta bougainvillea, sometimes leaving its doors open so that birds, squirrels and lizards can have their own wildlife corridor in her kitchen. During the 1958 New Year’s fire, she and her husband rode the canyon roads all night long as the embers flew like fireworks. In 2018, she ignored evacuation orders and refused to leave during the Woolsey fire.
“No electricity, no light, no radio, no television, no mobile phone service,” she recalls. “I ate fried chicken I bought from Ralph’s and potato salad. It was like going camping.
Living in Los Angeles canyon communities is living with the threat of fire. But a new emergency arose, as a statewide drought and heat wave helped create dangerous wildfire conditions and played a role in transforming the fire season in California. into an increasingly permanent phenomenon all year round.
Some, like Mr. Grasso, spend an enormous amount of time and energy in preparation. Others like Mrs. Wiley prepare very little. There are weekend goers – Topanga Canyon tourists in Airbnb teepees looking for Instagram-ready backgrounds and often not understanding the dangers of a nuisance campfire. And there are the homeless men and women who live near Topanga Creek and whom some residents blame for intentionally and accidentally starting fires.
Authorities made changes in the wake of the Woolsey fire in 2018 – Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties now have access to three firefighting helicopters that can fill their water tanks at 69 Bravo , a control center and a helipad on top of a mountain.
But many Topanga residents say more needs to be done. They asked for clarification on evacuation procedures, warning sirens, drills and a plan for inevitable power outages.
Topanga is the kind of unlikely canyon community that Los Angeles specializes in – Laurel Canyon, Runyon Canyon, Rustic Canyon, Benedict Canyon, Beachwood Canyon. It is mountainous and isolated neighborhoods and communities, each with its own identity and its own degrees of exclusivity, that have tested the limits of hill-side growth and construction.
Topanga’s geography and population make it particularly vulnerable, and the burning of the palisades has reminded many locals of the risks inherent in daily life in the canyon. If a fire were to break out at the northern end near the Topanga Overlook, it could take just 90 minutes for the canyon to burn down to the Pacific Ocean. But firefighters estimate it would take residents seven hours to completely evacuate the canyon – Topanga has only one main entry and exit road, Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
“If you move here, you are making a deal with nature,” said Bill Buerge, a longtime Topanga resident whose Spanish Colonial Revival-style home has had a colorful history as a country club, gay bar and game joint run by gangster Mickey. Cohen. “The flip side of beauty and history is all this danger. “
The palisade fire began in mid-May, four months before the start of the typical Southern California fire season. Last year, 658,069 acres in California burned as of June 11 due to wildfires – this year 833,479 have already burned. And the number of wildfires between January and mid-June fell from 20,731 fires last year to 26,833 this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Drew Smith, battalion commander and fire behavior analyst for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, compared a potential major fire in Topanga to the campfire, the state’s deadliest wildfire that decimated the town of Paradise in 2018 and killed at least 85 people.
“Thousands of people could die,” Chief Smith said. “It would be another paradise, and it’s not a question of if but when.” He added: “Topanga is literal paradise nine months a year. It’s those other three months that you worry about.
Topanga – an unincorporated community of nearly 8,300 residents in western Los Angeles County – is surrounded on three sides by the rugged and protected mountains of Santa Monica. The fourth side is bounded by the Pacific Ocean. You can hike to the Old Topanga Fire Lookout, an abandoned structure formerly used by the National Forest Service to monitor forest fires, and on a clear day see the San Fernando Valley, Catalina Island, Calabasas, Malibu and – 40 km east – downtown Los Angeles.
The city center is picturesque. There is a post office, library, general store, open-air theater, fire station, and a restaurant named Inn of the Seventh Ray that sells crystals in the gift shop. Around the main street and the mountain houses is Topanga State Park – 11,000 acres of protected land with 36 miles of trails. Famous for its exuberant wildflowers and mingled air of white sage, Topanga’s open space is synonymous with abundant wildlife – owls, deer, frogs, crickets, coyotes, and pumas, all of which contribute to a twilight chorus.
A bumper sticker found on locals’ cars serves as the canyon’s unofficial motto: “Don’t change Topanga, let Topanga change you.”
Here, it is easy to imagine the different eras succeeding each other.
When the Tongva and Chumash tribes lived near Topanga Creek. When the settlers claimed land from the Spaniards. When Tiburcio Vasquez, reputed to be an inspiration to Zorro, lived in hiding places with a bounty on his head. When smugglers spilled alcohol during Prohibition. When the Nazi sympathizers crouched down. When blacklisted actors and writers moved to Topanga in McCarthy’s heyday. When hippies staged loves.
In the 1960s and 1970s, transplant recipients lived in communities, sometimes behind the city center in caves near the creek, and were called Creekers. In the canyon there were drugs and music. Neil Young wrote and recorded “After the Gold Rush” while living in Topanga. The Old Corral, a dive bar, has hosted local talent like Canned Heat and Taj Mahal. Regulars included Linda Ronstadt, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell. When the Beatles stopped to listen to music, the locals let air out of the band’s tires so they couldn’t leave.
Ms. Wiley lives on 10 of the original 160 acres that her grandfather, Francisco Trujillo, operated from 1886. Her father, along with crews of inmates, built Topanga Canyon Boulevard in 1911. The Fire Roads in Topanga are still maintained by Malibu Conservation Camp 13, which houses a team of firefighters, cooks and maintenance workers all made up of women. The original wooden family ranch in Trujillo, a hundred yards from Mrs. Wiley’s home, still stands with a view of chaparral and chamise covered hills and mature coastal living oaks.
Ms. Wiley has seen it all: the fires, the floods, the rare snowstorm. None of this worries him like it worries others. In 1993, she waited for the Old Topanga fire in her living room: “I saw it burn, I saw a lot of smoke. It was very boring. “At the time, she and Mr Buerge, who lives in the historic Spanish colonial renaissance district and recently upgraded his outdoor wildfire sprinkler system with 16 farm-grade pumps, remained behind despite county evacuation orders.
“If a fire starts very quickly, I will not leave my property,” said Buerge. “I am very determined to stay here.
In October 1942 in Topanga Canyon, a three-day fire burned more than 20,000 acres and destroyed 40 homes. The following year, 53 houses were destroyed. Five years later, 41 families near Santa Maria Road had to evacuate. In 1993, the Old Topanga fire raged over 18,000 acres, consuming 359 structures and killing three people.
“The Topanga area has not seen a major fire since 1993, so we know that sooner or later we will face it,” said Sheila Kuehl, a member of the Los Angeles County Supervisory Board who represents Topanga.
Fire has become so entrenched in Topanga’s life that the community holds an annual emergency fair dedicated to fire safety and preparedness.
At the last in-person fair, in 2019, residents walked from stand to stand, chatting with rangers and vendors peddling generators, fire extinguishers, radio amateurs and fire prevention hydrants. All participants received a raffle ticket and a cell phone charger. The raffle prizes were professionally packed bug out bags. The kids tried on so-called participations – the fire-retardant black Nomex coveralls worn by firefighters – and posed for photos with Smokey Bear.
Mr. Grasso, the volunteer doctor of the concrete house and the cinder block bunker, attended the fair. He noticed that out of the thousands of inhabitants of Topanga, only a few hundred showed up.
“Every fire season the stress level seeps just below the surface,” Mr. Grasso said, adding: “I worry about people who say, ‘I stay back, I’ve been through a million these fires. ‘ I want to ask them, “Have you ever had your hair burnt on your arms?” Do you know what it feels like to have your lungs scorched? ‘ “