The recurring debate over whether residents should stay and fight the flames or pack up and run from brush fires took a new twist Thursday for residents of Topanga Canyon at the start of a dangerous wildfire season.
Each of the canyon's 2,856 homes received a 56-page emergency planning booklet that urges them to seriously consider staying and protecting their property instead of evacuating.
The advice--offered by a nonprofit citizens' emergency group--is the opposite of that given by Los Angeles County's sheriff's and fire departments.
During brush fires, the Fire Department routinely orders evacuation of homes thought to be in the path of advancing flames. Sheriff's deputies using patrol car loudspeakers issue the evacuation order to homeowners.
But the colorful, professionally produced booklet, "Evacuating Topanga: Risks, Choices and Responsibilities," suggests that able-bodied adults consider planning in advance to stay and protect their property.
The sheriff's and fire departments "do what they can do," advises the booklet from the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. "But they cannot be everywhere all at once. They are not all-seeing and infallible. The safety of you, your family and your property are your responsibility before it is theirs."
The booklet advises the elderly, those with young children and those not physically or mentally up to the ordeal of riding out a brush fire to quickly evacuate.
Those deciding to stay should have done advance planning--including brush clearance--and be ready to duck inside when the fire bears down on the structure.
The fire will pass by within minutes, producing intense exterior heat but not igniting the house or injuring those inside, according to the booklet. After that, resident should go back outside and begin extinguishing any embers on the roof or any residual fire next to walls before it can set any structures ablaze.
Fire officials caught by surprise by the booklet said Thursday that the advice seems sound--although they still prefer that homeowners leave.
"Using a house as a refuge when the fire blows through and then going out and extinguishing small spots afterward is what we teach our folks," said Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Marrone. "But our policy is to evacuate when there's sufficient time for people to safely evacuate."
Sheriff's Lt. Gregg Sabalone, emergency operations coordinator for the Santa Monica Mountains area, said his department is not wavering from its pack-up-and-leave stance.
"The Sheriff's Department position is flatly you should evacuate. When you see smoke coming, it's time to go to a hotel room and watch it on TV," Sabalone said.
But while deputies "order" evacuations, they usually cannot actually force residents to leave, said Sheriff's Capt. John O'Brien--whose deputies patrol both Topanga Canyon and brush fire-prone Malibu next door. .
"There's no legal authority to compel people [to] evacuate, short of their lives being in immediate danger," O'Brien said.
The chief author of the booklet said he is not surprised that fire and sheriff's officials never suggest publicly that residents stay and fight.
"They don't want the liability in case someone gets hurt," said Fred Feer, a 62-year-old retired military intelligence officer who has lived in Topanga Canyon for 16 years.
Feer stressed that the booklet is designed to help residents determine whether they are good candidates to stay and face a brush fire. It urges those who decide they do not want to stay to evacuate early--before narrow canyon roads are filled with smoke, on-coming fire engines and panicky neighbors who are also trying to flee.
The cost of printing the booklet and mailing it was covered by a $35,000 grant from the California Community Fund. It was produced through the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness, a nonprofit organization formed in the aftermath of the 1993 Topanga Canyon brush fire and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Feer said the booklet originally was to have been an evacuation plan.
"It's not what I thought it would be when we started," he said. "We decided there's hardly any back roads that can be used for evacuation."
While Topanga old-timers have typically ridden out brush fires, the coalition decided to face the controversy head-on after noticing that many newcomers had never experienced a wildfire.
According to Feer, he is convinced that "you're in good shape if you stay inside until the fire passes" when a brush fire strikes. "Then you go out and deal with the embers."
Battalion Chief Eric Ekeberg, who is in charge of firefighting in the Santa Monica Mountains, said he wonders how many people will actually read the booklet.
"Unfortunately, a booklet cannot accurately show what a brush fire is like. You can't imagine the feeling of pending doom when smoke blacks out the sun and embers rain down. That's when people say, 'I'm going to bail,' " Ekeberg said.