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Valley Perspective

Conservancy's Courage Under Fire

November 03, 1996

Over the past 16 years, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has become adept at doing more with less. Usually that resourcefulness takes the shape of cobbling together big tracts of parkland with virtually no money. But as last month's wildfire marched from Calabasas to Malibu, conservancy workers skillfully prevented flames from devouring the agency's historic compound in Solstice Canyon.

We are accustomed now to the tales of heroic homeowners who stand fast, armed only with garden hoses, as flames race across the land. Yet the conservancy's rangers, civilian maintenance workers and even Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston did even more. Trained in fire-suppression techniques, they were nearly as prepared as professional firefighters for the flames. They had bought special portable firefighting tanks and outfitted buildings with individual water supplies. Finally, the conservancy had picked up broken-down, secondhand firetrucks cheaply at auction and fixed them up.

This measure of preparedness was no accident. In 1993, fire had ravaged conservancy buildings as unprepared workers waited for overloaded firefighters to find them. This time, the story was different. Thanks to a little training and a little extra equipment, destruction was avoided and the public's investment was protected. Conservancy workers spent entire nights with their refurbished equipment to ensure the flames did not spread.

The conservancy regularly comes under attack for its unorthodox methods, from land swaps with developers to its ill-fated attempt to seize Soka University's scenic Calabasas campus through eminent domain. Indeed, the conservancy's blunders can be as big as its victories. In this case, though, the state agency's workers demonstrated their dedication to providing and protecting public parkland--even at great risk to themselves.

With limited cash and limitless devotion, the conservancy serves as an example of what government agencies can do. It's easy to criticize the conservancy for not following the normal paths of government, for playing by whatever rules fit the situation at hand. But if we are to believe the polls that proliferate at this time of year, people are sick of the normal path of government. How many government workers would spend the night amid flames and smoke to douse a burning branch office? Not many.

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