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Battle Plans Pay Off for Firefighters

Officials acted quickly to gain the upper hand on the Topanga blaze. Water-dropping copters, a strong radio network and luck played a part.

October 01, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

A massive, rapid and well-coordinated response -- along with a little bit of luck -- allowed firefighters this week to successfully battle a blaze that at its peak threatened about 2,000 homes, but destroyed only two.

The effort against the Topanga fire has provided a textbook example so far of emergency mobilization, officials said -- providing a sharp contrast to the problems that beset firefighters in massive blazes two years ago as well as to the troubled government response to the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.

By Friday afternoon, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the fire area, officials said the blaze, which at its height had burned more than 20,000 acres, was 35% to 40% contained and on its way to being under control.

By nightfall, officials lifted evacuation orders covering all communities affected by the fire. Some firefighters immediately moved to new blazes. One fire has burned 1,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains and prompted officials to issue mandatory evacuations for several hillside communities. Another struck in the hills above Burbank, consuming 700 acres but so far threatening no homes.

Although declining in its ferocity, the Topanga fire continued to pollute air across the region, prompting health officials to urge sensitive people living around the fire zone to avoid outdoor activities. Some schools in the San Fernando Valley canceled Friday night sporting events as ash and smoke continued to cloud the air. Air quality regulators said they expected conditions to improve today.

The firefighting effort began prosaically. It was just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, and Southern California's top fire officials were gathered around a conference table in a Lake Arrowhead hotel discussing how to improve emergency response.

As they spoke, the heads of the region's various fire agencies began receiving messages on their BlackBerries: A fire had broken out near Chatsworth and was spreading rapidly. Within half an hour, top officials from the Los Angeles County, city and Ventura County fire departments began to mobilize an army that would quickly grow to include more than 3,000 firefighters and 11 water-dropping helicopters.

Over the next 48 hours, fire crews, police officers and sheriff's deputies evacuated residents from about 2,000 homes that were threatened, and the fire's spread was blocked.

Officials said luck played a role in their success -- Santa Ana winds that spread the blaze on the first day slowed by Thursday and were replaced by ocean breezes and cooler, moister air Friday.

But they also benefited from lessons learned in other disasters, particularly the devastating 2003 San Diego fires, when a lack of resources and communication allowed a runaway blaze to destroy hundreds of homes before firefighters could mount a coordinated defense.

"The ability of local, federal and state service to respond to an emergency is a big topic around the country today," said Dave Hillman of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Everyone worked together to the same end. This is a good system. Unfortunately, we get a chance to try it out each summer."

Because the Topanga fire erupted on the Ventura-Los Angeles county border, responsibility for fighting it was divided between Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper and P. Michael Freeman, his Los Angeles counterpart.

The chiefs divided the fire into two distinct fronts -- with five commanders running the operations. Throughout the fire, the commanders sat together at the fire headquarters -- initially in Oak Park and later in Thousand Oaks -- consulting experts on fire behavior and jointly making decisions. As fire companies arrived from as far as Tulare and Marin counties, units specially trained to battle urban fires were assigned to home and structure protection, while experts on wild-land firefighting were assigned to tackle blazes in the hillsides.

The setup, the subject of extensive drills, is designed to make sure there is constant communication among the firefighting units and that intelligence is immediately shared.

Within two hours of the start of the fire, the commanders agreed on an unusually aggressive response: They would use the flood of firefighters coming from various agencies to defend as many communities as possible, going from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac. They also decided to scramble water-dropping helicopters at night -- a risky tactic that some agencies refuse to employ.

The 2003 San Diego fire spread so quickly in part because local agencies did not have choppers available for dropping water at night. Carlton Joseph, a U.S. Forest Service chief, said neither his agency nor the California Department of Forestry allows night drops because they are too dangerous.

But Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Johnny Jee said his agency sometimes permits night drops if the pilots know the terrain, the location of obstructions -- including power lines -- and if the situation is dire.

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