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Dressed up, with nothing to douse

La Habra Heights residents' two firetrucks are ready, but the city bans private efforts.

December 21, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

As residents of Malibu used their own firetruck last month to protect their street from flames, homeowners on the other side of Los Angeles County were doing a slow burn.

Residents of rustic La Habra Heights are prohibited from rolling out personal fire engines to fight wildfires in their neighborhood of million-dollar homes.

Officials of the hilly, brush-covered city on the Orange County line say it's against the law for anyone other than members of La Habra Heights' two-truck volunteer fire department to "provide or conduct firefighting" within the 7-square-mile city.

La Habra Heights' city attorney issued a cease-and-desist order to the owner of a firetruck, warning that he could face misdemeanor charges if he used his 250-gallon pumper truck to fight fires.

George Edwardz said he was shocked to learn that "that kind of activity will get you thrown in jail and a $1,000 fine."

Edwardz, 39, an executive vice president of a communications firm that does satellite work for TV broadcasters, has lived in La Habra Heights for five years.

He bought his 1980 four-wheel-drive pumper truck for $7,200 from a department in Montour Falls, N.Y., in early 2006 after becoming alarmed at the slow response to his neighborhood.

Sometimes, he said, it takes more than 12 minutes for La Habra Heights' fire engines -- which travel through La Habra in Orange County -- to reach his neighborhood.

When he acquired his 1 1/2 -acre hillside property in 2002 he was concerned about fire protection, Edwardz said. But local maps indicated there were five fire stations scattered across La Habra Heights, including one just a quarter-mile from his house, he said.

"I never went down physically to see it was there," Edwardz said.

When he finally hunted the place down, he found that "Fire Station 5" was an unoccupied, single-vehicle garage behind a church.

In fact, he discovered, La Habra Heights has only one fire station, and it is on the opposite side of town.

It is staffed by volunteers, along with some paid professionals moonlighting from their regular jobs with other fire departments.

Edwardz said he bought the New York firetruck and drove it cross-country intending to donate it to La Habra Heights to be used in the unoccupied Station 5. With its all-terrain drive, compact size and ability to pump water from backyard swimming pools, the pumper would be perfect for his neighborhood's narrow streets and steep driveways, he figured.

The city declined his offer, however, he said. So Edwardz and some neighbors formed a Fire Watch group, modeled after an Arson Watch program operated by a citizens group in Topanga Canyon.

La Habra Heights Fire Watch has 30 members. Eight have been trained by professional firefighters to operate Edwardz's firetruck.

This summer, Fire Watch member Karen Vipperman spent $13,000 to buy a second fire engine, a 1984 pumper formerly used to fight wildfires in rural Washington state. It is also equipped with four-wheel drive, can pump from swimming pools and carries 250 gallons of water that can be tripled in volume with a special foam device.

"We don't answer fire calls. But if I see my neighbor's house on fire, I'll fight it," Vipperman said. "I live on an 8-acre ranch, and I'm concerned about the city's fire station being so far from us."

Edwardz said it was Oct. 12, 2006, when he drove a few hundred yards from his home to check on a plume of smoke and ran afoul of La Habra Heights' citizen firefighting ban.

"I thought it was a wildfire. But it was a car that had caught fire next to the brush. A La Habra motorcycle cop was there and he instructed me to start hosing down the car. I told him my training was for wildfires. He said to cool down the car, then," Edwardz said.

An L.A. County fire company arrived a few minutes later to extinguish the flames. A few minutes after that, La Habra Heights' own engine company showed up.

Two weeks later Edwardz received a letter from La Habra Heights' city attorney advising him "of the prohibition on unauthorized firefighting activities within the city and to demand that you cease and desist from conducting any firefighting, rescue and/or paramedic operations within the city limits of the city of La Habra Heights."

City Atty. Sandra Levin wrote in the letter that the firefighting ban was designed to prevent untrained and unsupervised individuals from putting themselves and "the entire community" at risk.

Public safety "would be significantly compromised if the authorized, experienced, trained, licensed and fully-equipped fire personnel charged with fighting fires in La Habra Heights had to compete with unauthorized, amateur firefighters for control of, or access to, the scene of an emergency."

Edwardz contends he handed over his fire engine's hose to the Los Angeles County firefighters and stepped aside when they arrived. He said he was congratulated for his efforts by the engine company's captain, who shook his hand.

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