Preparing for climate change fires in Los Angeles

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Topanga preparedness. Credit: Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness.

For the first time, Topanga Canyon Boulevard was closed from Mulholland to Pacific Coast Highway not because of a fire, but an extreme red flag wind advisory (residents were allowed in and out). If a blaze were to break out, officials wanted to ensure that firefighters could easily get in and residents could get out.

As climate change increases, so has the risk of damage and “faster and more erratic” firestorms. And in Los Angeles, Topanga Canyon has become a “model for emergency fire preparedness.”

Emergency preparedness is the main mission of T-CEP, the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. Board Chair Scott Ferguson says T-CEP “consists of both public agencies and private homeowners,” and is run 100% by volunteers who are trained and ready to get to their stations.

Even in what’s called the “Wildland Urban Intermix,” “wooy” for short, those who want to live away from it all are learning to get to know their neighbors in the interests of mutual protection. There could be an elderly or disabled person trapped in the house next door, or a pet left behind when its owner had to go to work. T-CEP has built a strong community awareness program, Neighborhood Network, and encourages annual meetings between neighbors.

Last year’s Woolsey Fire did not reach Topanga Canyon, but there was an eight-day evacuation anyway, which Scott Ferguson says “really woke up a lot of people” and shifted the paradigm.

“LA County Fire will be getting very aggressive about evacuations in order to prevent the kinds of tragedies that we saw up north in Paradise, in the Camp Fire, for instance,” he says.

So far Topanga hasn’t lost power, but T-CEP is integral in interfacing with utilities and government agencies. Feguson says cell phone communication is taken for granted in urban areas where cell towers are ubiquitous, which is not the case in the Canyon. “In Topanga, every part of our communications infrastructure depends on electricity and that includes cell phones,”

Ferguson goes on to emphasize that residents are not driven away by the fear of fires. Most of the time, it is a beautiful place to live. But he says he sees T-CEP as “the insurance of being prepared so that if something happens, you can save your life, or at least hopefully your home.”




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody