Nervous inhabitants of Topanga Canyon are trying an unusual way to protect themselves as this year's autumn brush fire season gets underway.
Tonight they are throwing a potluck dinner for firefighters and for the pilots of "Super Scooper" water-dropping planes that Los Angeles County is renting for the next two months.
And after dessert, residents of the mountain hamlet will premiere a do-it-yourself film documentary that praises the flying tankers that can skim over the ocean and suck up 1,600 gallons of fire-quenching water in 16 seconds.
The dinner is designed to put a human face on the isolated canyon for firefighters and fliers who will be called on to protect Topanga's 5,000 homes if a Santa Ana wind-whipped blaze breaks out there.
The film is aimed at persuading state lawmakers to buy a pair of the Super Scoopers, at $22 million each, and permanently station them in the Los Angeles area.
Topanga leaders say they have given up trying to persuade county officials to pony up the cash for the Canadair 415 tanker planes. The county Fire Department would rather buy helicopters because they are more versatile than fixed-wing craft and can be used as ambulances when not dropping water on fires.
Nonetheless, after a disastrous 1993 brush fire killed three people, burned 17,000 acres and destroyed 350 homes in Topanga, Calabasas and Malibu, the county agreed to spend about $2 million a year renting a pair of Super Scooper planes from the province of Quebec during the fall months.
A newly approved agreement gives the county authority to request the planes each fall for the next five years, according to Alain Desrosiers, aerial services director for Quebec.
But that's not enough, say Topanga residents who have formed a nonprofit group called Citizens for Aerial Fire Protection to press for the purchase of Super Scoopers.
Brush fires can erupt in heavily populated hills and mountains around Los Angeles from May through January, the group argues. The airplanes' 170-mph speed and large fuel supply means they are only minutes away from most spots in Southern California, such as Friday's blaze that blackened 3,000 acres of heavy brush in the Santa Clarita Valley and caused hundreds of people to be evacuated.
The group's 12-minute documentary, "Initial Attack," makes that point through interviews with Topanga residents who have experienced brush fires. Slickly photographed and edited with specially composed music and PBS-quality narration, it was produced by professional filmmakers and writers who live in the canyon.
Residents shown in the film include actors Thad Geer, Bill Fagerbakke and William O'Leary, conservation expert David Gottlieb and canyon schoolteacher Anne Stalcup--who lost her home in the 1993 fire.
"California has the resources to own Super Scoopers. It's criminal that we don't. You don't put out a fire with a squirt gun," Stalcup says in the film.
Film producer Tony Morris, a former TV documentary writer, said the citizens group was encouraged when Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura authorized the purchase of a pair of Super Scoopers to fight wildfires there. And it got a boost when local state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), whose district includes Topanga and other fire-prone territory, viewed a rough cut of the movie, offered suggestions and said she would show it around Sacramento.
But this week, Kuehl said state financial problems caused by the energy crisis have forced a change of heart. Plus, she said, Los Angeles County fire officials prefer helicopters.
"The state budget, and the fact that the people who would use them don't want them, gave me pause," Kuehl said.
Without her support, any plane-buying plan will find it hard to get off the ground.
Kuehl's switch "was very discouraging," said the film's director, longtime rock music video editor Tom Mitchell.
County fire officials deny that they do not want Super Scoopers. On Friday, in fact, they staged a press conference at Van Nuys Airport to show off two new $12.5-million Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters they have purchased as well as the rented Super Scoopers and a leased heavy-duty Erickson Air-Crane being temporarily used for firefighting.
All five aircraft took off for the brush fire in the Santa Clarita Valley's Bouquet Canyon area before officials--and cameras--arrived, however.
"The county is not interested in buying Super Scoopers. But we'd absolutely support the state buying them. The more equipment available to us the better," said acting Assistant Chief Tom Page, who heads the county Fire Department's air and wild lands division.
That kind of talk could send Topanga's filmmakers back to work after tonight's potluck premiere. New footage might be added showing how the Super Scooper not only fights brush fires but can also combat refinery and industrial blazes, patrol coastlines, ferry troops and land on water for sea rescues and law enforcement missions, its producers indicated.
The film's new audience, they hinted, could be a federal one: organizers of the new Office of Homeland Defense.