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Keeping an Eye Out for Arson

October 27, 1996|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CALABASAS — Allen Emerson's phone is ringing nonstop. His scanner is spurting static and his two-way radio emits a garbled voice. Outside, a Fire Department helicopter flying low through Cold Canyon compounds the din.

For this one morning, Emerson's bedroom in a rustic Cold Canyon home has become "Arson Watch base," as in, "Calling Arson Watch base, do you copy?"

And still wearing his pajama bottoms, Emerson, a former restaurateur, has become the frenetic commander of a battalion of volunteers.

As coordinator of the Community Arson Watch Program, Emerson is in charge of the citizen watchdogs who prowl the Santa Monica Mountains on "red flag days," the roughly half a dozen to 20 times a year when winds are high and the surrounding canyons are at their driest.

The volunteers, mostly residents of the canyons, work under the direction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. They drive around looking for anything they consider suspicious--strange cars parked where there are no trails, patches of smoke on the horizon--and radio their findings to Emerson.

Neighbors who know about the Arson Watch also call Emerson to report trouble and get information on the latest fire or wind news.

The watchers have never caught an arsonist in the act, but Sgt. Tim Youngern of the Lost Hills sheriff's substation says they are good at "identifying the people who don't belong" in areas ripe for brush fires.

Emerson thinks the watchers prevented an arson a couple of years ago when they spotted some people walking into the brush with knapsacks. Sheriff's deputies checked out the hikers and found road flares in their packs, he said.

The volunteers' cars, decked with red Arson Watch placards, are thought to discourage potential arsonists and to remind people inclined toward cigarettes or barbecues of the intense fire hazard in the hills.

"You'd be surprised" how many people forget, despite the blackened slopes rising on every side, says watch volunteer Marilyn Browning, who has stopped to pick up a radio at Emerson's house.

Brian Courcier, 70, head of the Calabasas Arson Watch team, is waiting for her in the driveway. "There isn't a hell of a lot left to burn here," he says, looking at the hills and shrugging, before sending her on her patrol.

*

Inside, Emerson is jammed into a desk between his bed and his television set. He has been on the radio since 8 a.m. Although it is a quiet morning in the Santa Monica Mountains, his bedroom bristles with action, and he's clearly having a ball.

"Unit calling Arson Watch base, go ahead," he barks into the radio. "We've got winds up to 50 or 60 mph on the ridge tops," he murmurs over his shoulder to others in the room before swinging back to the radio. "Bad copy. Try again. What's your wind condition up there?"

Emerson, who wears a "Topanga" sweatshirt and a neat silver mustache, has been doing this for 14 years, ever since actor Buddy Ebsen, a Liberty Canyon resident, organized the patrols after the 1982 Dayton Canyon fire.

Today, about 150 people participate in six teams throughout the mountains.

Browning, who had to evacuate her horses from her home in Monte Nido last week, said she's never reported anything except parked cars.

As she talks, a fellow arson watcher radios in a report of a man dumping garbage from a blue Chevy van.

The real value of the arson patrol work is that "it's empowering," she said. "Instead of living with fear and feeling helpless, this is something we can do."

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