After dodging fires in Topanga Canyon for 46 years, Louise Larson does not have to be told how important it is to keep brush cleared away from her wood-frame house.
So Larson was not prepared for what she was told when she went to her local fire station for a permit to burn this year's pile of dead limbs and weeds behind her hillside home as she always does.
Firefighters said "No." They said her backyard bonfire would violate smog laws, even if it was set on a windless, smogless day.
"They told me that the air-quality district had just found out that people here in the canyon were burning," Larson, 81, recalled Tuesday. "They said we couldn't burn any more."
The ban has left Larson and other Topanga residents burning with anger, however.
They worry that the prohibition will prompt some mountain property owners to skip brush clearance altogether next spring and force others to dump debris in gullies rather than pay to cart it off to a public landfill in Agoura.
The result could be an explosive buildup of dead brush that could endanger the entire 2,000-home Topanga area next year, residents and canyon leaders contend.
"A fire that is fed by burnables dumped in canyons by people who don't want, or can't afford to pay dump fees is going to cause more problems than one bonfire in a yard," said Jan Moore, president of the Topanga Canyon Town Council.
"We have to go back to the burning or they're really creating a danger up here."
Los Angeles County Fire Department officials concur.
"If it's not a problem next year, it will be a couple of years down the line. That dead stuff will add a lot of BTUs," said Capt. Lee Brown, referring to British thermal units, used to measure heat. "You'll see some tremendous flame lengths."
South Coast Air Quality Management District officials say they ordered an end to backyard brush burning in June to enforce a "longstanding policy on open burning" in the Los Angeles Basin.
"They were passing it off as agricultural products," said Jim Birakos, deputy executive officer of the regional anti-pollution district. "But brush doesn't pass the definition of agricultural products.
Birakos said his agency is prepared to waive the rules if local fire officials declare that backyard burning is the only way to handle the brush and prevent a fire hazard.
But air-quality officials feel that there are mechanical devices such as "chippers" for cleanly disposing of brush and dead limbs if property owners do not want to truck them out of the canyon, Birakos said.
That stance is being opposed by the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District, whose directors have passed a resolution against the burning ban. They say that the use of chippers is dangerous, dusty and expensive, and that dump trucks create air pollution.
Resource district leaders dusted off a 1972 study that concluded that burning brush causes less air pollution than hauling it.
The report, compiled by former Topanga Postmaster and resource district director Albert J. Hoyt, who died three months ago, concluded that 15 times more nitrogen oxide, a major component of smog, comes from hauling a ton of brush from the canyon than from burning it there.
'Anxious to Talk'
Birakos said his agency has yet to receive either the resource district resolution or Hoyt's report. But he said air-quality officials are prepared to discuss the matter.
Unless Hoyt's conclusions are valid, however, he said, "the Fire Department is going to have to convince us these problems can only be solved with open burning."
Assistant county Fire Chief Paul Blackburn said his department is ready to try.