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Blighted Brush in Topanga Canyon Sparks Call for an All-Eyes Alert

July 16, 1987|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Topanga Canyon residents have been urged to keep an eye on strangers in their rural community this summer to protect themselves from an unusually dangerous brush-fire threat.

The 2,000-home community is a "huge, huge time bomb" that could be detonated at any moment by firebugs or careless visitors, Los Angeles County fire officials warned homeowners recently.

The canyon is already as dry as it usually is in October--the traditional peak of the brush-fire season, the officials told members of Topanga's volunteer fire patrol.

The 105 members of the Community Arson Watch squad roam canyon roads in private cars equipped with magnetic identification signs and citizens band radios. They watch for smoke and for suspicious-looking automobiles in brushy areas.

This year's dry winter, coupled with a mysterious fungus that is killing chaparral in the Santa Monica Mountains, has left brushy hillsides tinder-dry, said Capt. Scott Franklin of the county Fire Department.

Blight Shows in Photos

Dead canyon brush is showing up in infrared photos taken by government scientists from a high-altitude U2-style spy plane, Franklin said. The photos indicate that a blight that began killing brush three years ago in the San Gabriel Mountains has reached Topanga Canyon.

"You folks are living in a house of straw," he told 60 members of the Topanga Arson Watch. "You may think I'm yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. But I'm not the only one who feels you're in serious trouble. You need a whole lot of eyes out there watching."

Franklin, a brush-fire expert who heads a Fire Department program that creates firebreaks by burning brush in controlled situations, said the Topanga Canyon threat will probably not ease until the dead brush burns and is replaced by young growth.

"I know that year after year we say that it's going to be a bad fire season," Franklin said. "But in my experience, this is the worst condition we've seen the chaparral in since we've been monitoring it. We've got a very serious problem."

Fire officials say a frost in late February killed some coastal chaparral that had not been infected by the blight, called a "dieback" by scientists.

Cause of Blight

Federal researchers have identified a microorganism called Botryosphaeria as the possible cause of the blight. They said the fungus was first discovered in withering shrubs north of Los Angeles that were weakened by a drought four years ago.

Because Topanga Canyon is heavily populated, county fire officials said it is their top priority for fire prevention this summer and fall.

County Fire Battalion Chief Jerry Peskett told Arson Watch members that budget problems are adding to the Fire Department's woes.

Peskett urged canyon residents to rally around a proposal for a special $15.73 annual homeowner assessment that would help prevent fire-protection cutbacks. County supervisors will consider approval of the assessment on July 23, he said.

County Sheriff's Department administrators also recommended stepped-up surveillance by the volunteer patrol.

"We don't expect or want you to be policemen," said sheriff's Sgt. Jim Brady. "We just want you to be the eyes and ears of the Sheriff's Department and Fire Department."

Suspected Arsonist

Sgt. Al Humphries, a member of the sheriff's arson squad, said deputies have a suspected Topanga Canyon-area arsonist under surveillance. He said the man's license-plate number and description would be provided to Arson Watch members.

"We believe he's responsible for three or four fires in this area," Humphries told patrol members.

Arson Watch leader Allen Emerson, a 62-year-old caterer, said members of his group will jot down license numbers of suspicious cars and descriptions of strangers in the canyon, which is south of Woodland Hills. The information will be given to sheriff's investigators if a fire breaks out.

Cathy Ebsen, leader of an Arson Watch group headquartered in Agoura, said that the members of her organization are patrolling the mountainous area south of Agoura Hills and Westlake Village.

Ebsen, 38, who is a Liberty Canyon rancher and a daughter of actor Buddy Ebsen, said the vigilantes watch for illegal off-road drivers as well as arsonists.

State Department of Forestry officials say 95% of all wildfires are caused by people. Besides being started by arsonists, fires are often accidentally set by cigarette smokers and off-road motorcyclists and four-wheelers.

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