Disaster Readiness and Relief
November 20, 2012
Last week, a memorial was relocated in the San Fernando Valley, a bit of granite that was moved for improvements at El Cariso Community Regional Park. The marker is modest, standing in sharp contrast to the tragedy it commemorates: Forty-six years ago this month, 31 young men were dispatched to a wildfire near Sylmar, and only 19 of them survived.
Rich Leak was 19 that summer, the gung-ho son of a Camp Pendleton fire captain. “All my life,” he recalls “I had wanted to be a fireman.” After attending a summer firefighting program at the U.S. Marine base, he had joined an elite ground crew of “hotshots” based near Lake Elsinore, so called because they were dispatched to the hottest parts of forest blazes. By 1966, his second year with the El Cariso Hotshots, he was a crew foreman, traveling the West to cut fire lines and clear brush around raging wildfires and “loving the excitement and the adrenalin rush.”
The Nov. 1, 1966, call came on a hot day at the end of a long fire season: A faulty power line had sparked a brushfire near Pacoima Dam. Whipped by Santa Ana winds, the blaze had charred some 2,000 acres around Loop Canyon. But it appeared to be dying by the time Leak and his fellow hotshots got what they regarded as an easy assignment—to scrape a fire line along a ravine near the smoldering fire.
“There wasn’t a lot of brush, and the fire was starting to lay down, so the line we were cutting didn’t have to be that big,” Leak remembers. The young men worked without gloves, their hands thick and calloused, their shirtsleeves rolled up. Their orange fire shirts had been washed so many times that they had long since lost their fire retardant coating. No one carried a radio or stood lookout. No one bothered to haul in a portable fire shelter.
And no one understood the dangers of the terrain, Leak says. Now firefighters know that a steep crease in a slope can act as a draft for combustible gasses. But on that day, no one knew that the 31 guys in orange hardhats were entering a death trap. They were nearly done with their work when, at 3:35 p.m., the wind abruptly shifted. A spot fire ignited on the hillside below them. As Leak looked up, the air around him suddenly went wavy.
Down the line an order came: Get out—now! But within seconds, a mighty rush of super-hot gas swept up the 2,200-foot ravine and exploded.
“It was like when you pour lighter fluid on a charcoal barbeque and put a match to it,” Leak remembers. “There was this big wooooof! And then all I could see was just a wall of orange flame. I had to look straight up to see blue sky.”
Leak held his breath so his lungs wouldn’t sear in the 2,500-degree heat, falling to his knees as the shock wave hit him. “Guys were yelling and screaming and praying and calling for their mothers,” he remembers. “I was talking to my Savior, that’s for sure.”
The Loop Fire would change safety protocols for fighting fires in narrow canyons, encouraging lookouts and radios and the development of much-improved fire gear, but not before it claimed the lives of 12 hotshots, most in their late teens and early 20s. Ten more were critically burned and scarred for life by the disaster. The fireball lasted no longer than 60 seconds, but in that time Leak suffered full-circumference burns from his elbows to his wrists, and lost four of his fingers.
After the smoke cleared, he recalls, “I was in shock, running around from one guy to the next, trying to put out the fire with my bare hands. At one point, I looked down at my arms and saw skin hanging down. All I thought was, ‘Wow, I guess I got burned pretty good.’”
It took three years and more than 30 surgeries for doctors to repair Leak’s wounds, using skin grafts from his stomach to repair his damaged hands. He has had to relearn how to type and eat with utensils. He struggles to pick up coins and he has to use both hands to screw a hose onto a faucet. He has no fingerprints.
“For a long time, I was very self-conscious,” he remembers. He went back to school at Palomar College near his hometown of Vista, earning an associate degree in business, thinking he might become a CPA. Then he heard the Vista Fire Department was hiring dispatchers. “It’s hard to describe unless you’re a firefighter,” he says. “It never goes away for me.”
He spent 30 years with the Vista Fire Department, working his way up to fire investigator before retiring to Hesperia 12 years ago. He married a friend’s neighbor and helped raise her two children. “To her, it was what was in my heart that mattered,” he says. “She told me she didn’t even notice I was burned at first.”
Then in 1996, the U.S. Forest Service sent him a notification: A memorial commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Loop Fire was going to be installed in El Cariso Park. Not all the survivors could make it, but some did. Sadly, they recalled the fallen.
“I still remember ‘em,” Leak says. “Raymond Chee, my crew boss, a Navajo I think from New Mexico—very quiet guy, used a brush hook. He was the best hook I’ve ever seen. The White brothers, Michael and Stephen, 22 and 18. They were from San Diego. Their dad was a captain in the Navy. It was devastating for their family.
“John Figlo, he was 18, kind of a quiet guy. Strong. James Moreland. He was in his twenties. Frederick Danner, a tall guy and a really good worker. He died in the hospital. Kenneth Barnhill, nice guy. I knew his brother. Carl Shilcutt, he was 26, one of the older guys on the crew.” He continues down the list: Daniel Moore, Joel Hill, William Waller. John Verdugo, a 19-year-old kid whose body was the first one he saw when he opened his eyes.
Leak kept in touch with the other survivors. He and another ex-hotshot, Ed Cosgrove, began giving talks together to fire academy classes. There were reunions—that’s how he found out that the 1996 marker was in serious need of repair. A drunk driver had hit it and cracked the granite. Skateboarders had worn down the lettering; taggers had marred it with graffiti.
So Leak spearheaded a move for a new one, only to learn that it was going to be moved anyway to make way for park improvements. Last week, a new marker was re-dedicated near a park office building. “It’s near a walkway,” he says. “Granite, just like the original.”
“There are times when I think, ‘What if I’d perished?’” says Leak, now 65. “But you can’t let things haunt you. You have to get over your injuries and go for it. I’m thankful to be here, living my life.”
August 9, 2012
If you’ve got the skills, L.A. County wants you to be part of The Surge.
A new advertising campaign is being launched to expand the ranks of the county’s network of volunteer healthcare professionals who help out when major disasters or public health emergencies strike.
“No matter what happens with a disaster, there are always issues with medical needs,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the county Emergency Medical Services Agency. “Right now our hospitals are really maxed out, so, in case of a large-scale disaster, you are going to need extra professionals to staff those needs.”
Electronic billboard space valued at up to $250,000 recently was donated to the Los Angeles County Disaster Healthcare Volunteers, a collaborative effort led by the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency and Department of Public Health, by outdoor communications companies, through a partnership with the City of Los Angeles. The donation was approved by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
One of the new billboard ads will recruit for the L.A. County Surge Unit, the largest of four volunteer groups under the “Disaster Healthcare Volunteers” umbrella. Another will spread the word about the Medical Reserve Corps of Los Angeles—a volunteer unit associated with the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. A third ad will be reserved for recruiting when a major disaster already has occurred.
The county volunteer collaborative was founded after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina increased awareness of a need for backup healthcare personnel. Volunteers pre-register as professionals by entering their information into a database managed by the State of California. Their licensure and place of practice are verified by the program, and they are then considered “hospital ready.”
The Surge Unit seeks a variety of healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, EMTs and lab technicians. The unit is not aimed at recruiting first responders; rather, it seeks people to serve during the days following a large-scale disaster, when they would be contacted and mobilized to increase the capacity of hospitals and clinics.
Licensed mental health professionals are also vital to the effort, said Sandra Shields, Senior Disaster Services Analyst for the unit.
“Following a disaster, we expect a surge in people coming to the hospital concerned that they may be ill or have an injury, but are not actually hurt,” said Shields. Mental health professionals “can help manage the psychological casualties of major disasters.”
For more information about the Surge Unit or to register to help, visit the website or call (818) 908-5150. The unit also offers training sessions several times per year. The sessions are voluntary, as are all other aspects of the program. The personal information of volunteers is secured and can only be accessed by official representatives of the group.
The Surge Unit currently boasts 3,027 volunteers. With the help of the billboards, the program hopes to reach 4,000 by the end of the year. If you think you may want to help out during a disaster, signing up in advance is critical.
“The hospitals and clinics cannot effectively utilize spontaneous volunteers,” Shields said. “We want to use their skills appropriately and that’s easier if they are pre-registered.”
September 25, 2011
Michel Proulx has spent so many autumns in Los Angeles that he’s now a regular at pickup hockey games in the San Fernando Valley. Stéphane Monette has used his off-hours to teach himself to speak Spanish and to surf. One year, it was so dry for so long that Christmas came and went before Carl Villeneuve could return to his wife and three children near Quebec City.
“It was OK,” he recalls with a laugh in his French-accented English. “You do not have snow in Los Angeles, but you have a lot of the winter decoration. One time in each four or five years, it is not so bad.”
For the past 18 years, an elite band of French-Canadian pilots and mechanics has left the Quebec backcountry to spend their autumns—and occasionally their winters—fighting fires in Los Angeles.
Fresh from their own wildfire season, they board two Bombardier CL-415 Super Scoopers leased from the government of Quebec by Los Angeles County. In the bright fixed-wing aircraft, which fly much lower and slower than commercial jet planes, they make the long trip south and west to the land of sunshine, celebrities and Santa Anas.
Once here, they check into the Burbank Holiday Inn—”our Hollywood house,” as Proulx jokingly calls it. Some meet wives and children. Some unpack sports equipment. Some pull out fiddles and guitars and hold Acadian jam sessions in their hotel rooms.
Then they get down to some of the most dangerous work on either side of the nation’s northern border.
“It’s really a unique situation, ” says Battalion Chief Anthony Marrone, who for the past seven years has acted as the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s liaison with the fliers from Canada’s Service Aérien Gouvernemental.
“They come here to risk their lives for people they don’t know, for a place that isn’t their country, for a job in which they’re not making a ton of money. But over the years, they’ve really become a part of our firefighting family.”
The famed Super Scoopers, which over the years have become a red-and-yellow icon of Southern California’s fire season, skim water from local lakes and the ocean and airdrop it onto wildfires. Los Angeles County has leased two of the sturdy aircraft during fire season annually since 1994, a year after the Old Topanga Fire killed three people and destroyed hundreds of homes in Topanga, Malibu and Calabasas. Each plane can pull in 1,620 gallons in 12 seconds, dump it and circle back at more than 170 miles an hour.
Marrone says the Super Scoopers cost the county about $2.75 million each fire season, which typically runs for 90 to 120 days, from September into December.
That price includes the pilots and their support crews, who work in 11-man rotations—four captains, four copilots and three mechanics. Each group stays for about a month, working out of the county’s air tanker base at the Van Nuys Airport, before a new group arrives via commercial airlines.
Over the years, the crews have been summoned to nearly every major fire in the county, particularly since the devastating 2009 Station Fire, when the U.S. Forest Service, which was managing the blaze, was criticized for not deploying more air power. The fire, the largest in county history, claimed the lives of two Los Angeles County firefighters while burning more than 160,000 acres and destroying some 200 homes and other buildings.
Since their arrival September 1, the planes and their crews have helped extinguish blazes in Newhall, Agua Dulce and Mandeville Canyon, among other hotspots.
“They’ve been there in Malibu, in the Buckweed Fire in Santa Clarita, in La Cañada Flintridge, in Diamond Bar and Palos Verdes, in Calabasas—everywhere,” says Marrone. “I was the helicopter coordinator on the Marek Fire in 2008 and they were out there long after any other air tanker would have had to turn back.”
The pilots downplay the danger.
“Sometimes we get bounced around when the Santa Ana winds pick up and we’re in the canyons, but mostly it is business as usual,” says Proulx, 46, who has been coming to L.A. since 2001. “We fly an aircraft that performs well in that kind of situation. When you’re using the right tool, it’s like driving a rig—it’s just a job.”
“We manage the risk carefully,” agrees chief pilot Villeneuve, who spent 11 years as a Canadian bush pilot before signing on with the Service Aérien Gouvernemental 15 years ago.
The biggest challenge, they say, is to keep track of all the moving parts of an urban fire scene. The wilderness of Quebec has its pitfalls, but news choppers and power lines and dolphins leaping in and out of the waves don’t tend to be among them. Nor do subdivisions and milling crowds.
In Canada, Proulx says, their work mostly involves dipping into remote lakes to put out forest fires. But L.A. “looks like Legoland from the sky—I don’t know the English word for it, but the city goes on and on forever and ever. When we drop the water, we’re about 75 to 100 feet above the ground and we can see the people waving and all that. Sometimes we can see the firefighters’ faces down there.”
In fact, Monette says, one of his most vivid experiences here was in 1999 during his first L.A. fire season, when he looked down from the cockpit and realized for the first time just how high the human stakes would be on this job.
“The fires were so close to the people and the cities—it made me feel that to miss just one drop would be awful,” remembers the veteran pilot. Now 46 and the father of two teenagers in Quebec City, Monette has volunteered for the Los Angeles County contract at least a dozen times since that initial flight.
For the Canadians, the L.A. rotation is more than just a chance to hone their job skills. It’s also an opportunity to create a traveling hybrid of north-south culture. Some, like avionics technician Jean Larocque, go mountain climbing in their off hours. Eric Tremblay, 45 and on his first stint here, went to Lake Arrowhead during some time off last weekend. Jean-David St.-Laurent, a 37-year-old serving his second year in L.A., says he has taken to starting each day with a brisk 2-hour hike through the chaparral in Wildwood Canyon Park, near the hotel.
Monette is drawn to the beaches when he manages to get a day off; over the years, he says, he has acquired two surfboards. He also has worked on his communication skills. “I was surprised when I came here that everything was more or less in Spanish, not English, so I learned the language,” he recalls.
Coming to California, he says, “was a dream, since I was a little boy—this place is so associated with freedom, the California way of life.” The reality is, of course, more complex, he has since decided. “How free are you, really,” he asks, “when your way of living turns out to be an eternal rush hour?”
Proulx, whose rotation starts in October, plans to find an amateur hockey game as soon as he gets here, a habit he developed after he hooked up with an organization for Quebec expatriates online. “This year, I’m thinking about Burbank—I’ve already played in Simi Valley and Van Nuys.”
And, he adds, he’ll be bringing his fiddle.
“Another guy brings his guitar, and sometimes in the evenings, we have a few beers and play music until the bursar from the hotel comes and tells us to lower the noise.
“We play funny songs, dirty songs…My favorite one is called in English, ‘You’ve Broken the Chain on my Tractor.’ Hey, you got to do something besides just wait for fires.”
But the best part of coming to L.A., they say, is the chance to be of assistance.
Each year, they are touched by the grateful fan mail they receive. Once, they were feted by Topanga homeowners; another time, a classroom of schoolchildren drew them a packet of pictures.
And the Canadians have a secret: L.A. brushfires die more readily than Quebec’s tree-fueled conflagrations, especially with fire operations as well-run as those here.
“In Canada, we can be working on a fire for days and days and you can almost never see the end of it,” Proulx says. “But in L.A., you take off and see that big smoke, and every time, we know we’re going to go work hard and fight hard, but we got a good chance to win.”
September 21, 2011
People aren’t the only creatures who need help in a natural disaster—just ask the buffalo who was rescued from its backyard during the 2009 Station Fire. Or the zoo animals evacuated in 2007 when Griffith Park burned. Or any number of feline or canine survivors of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
For years, when Los Angeles County has needed help rescuing animals in peril, local municipalities and nonprofit animal welfare societies have willingly pitched in. The system has had just one problem, says county Directorof Animal Care and Control Marcia Mayeda: It hasn’t been official.
Now that situation is about to change, thanks to a mutual assistance agreement that spells out the framework under which the county and animal welfare groups will cooperate.
“No one has ever had a problem,” says Mayeda, “but over time, we began to realize that signing a formal Memorandum of Understanding might be good.” Although local agencies always responded gladly, she says, disasters elsewhere made it clear that potential liability questions and lines of communication could be clarified and federal reimbursement could be streamlined if a formal agreement were put in place.
This week, to the relief of Southern Californians of many species, the Board of Supervisors set the process in motion, approving an MOU with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles.
Mayeda says the agreement, which lays out general lines of authority and resource sharing between the county and spcaLA, will help local officials respond to disasters more efficiently. Over time, she says, the department will ask other animal services agencies to sign on; the MOU can be expanded to include various humane societies and local animal control offices as co-signatories in times of need.
“There are about a dozen agencies like this that we’ve worked with in L.A.County,” she says. Cooperation is crucial, she says, because “a disaster or emergency knows no boundaries.”
“There aren’t a lot of us in the world who spend our time being concerned about the welfare of animals,” says Madeline Bernstein, executive director of spcaLA. “So we can get a lot more done when we help each other out in mutual aid.”
Bernstein says spcaLA has teamed up with the county informally on many occasions, manning shelters when county workers were out doing rescues, rounding up and dispersing food at pet evacuation centers, even joining forces with county investigators to help prosecute cases of animal cruelty.
During the Station Fire, she says, spcaLA helped the county feed and house countless animals who were rendered homeless by the conflagration near the Angeles National Forest.
“We had dogs, cats, birds, a very large pig, a llama they were trying to pull to safety,” she remembered. “A buffalo who was someone’s pet. We evacuated part of the Wildlife Way Station in conjunction with the county. In a disaster, there are all sorts of animals other than the ones you’d expect.”
Bernstein says Hurricane Katrina and other recent natural disasters spurred the move toward formalization.
“After Katrina, when we could see that people were choosing not to evacuate rather than to leave pets behind, it became clearer that a disaster plan should include animals,” she says.
“We have done exactly this forever,” says Bernstein. “This just puts forth a more organized face.”
September 8, 2011
In the nightmarish days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with fears running high of another strike on the way, L.A. County Fire Department’s elite urban search and rescue team remained in place—first in line to respond here if the West Coast was next.
But some of its members, called up by FEMA and working on their own time, traveled east to lend a hand at the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites. In the 10 years since, their experiences in those dark days and nights have stayed with them and, in some ways, shape their world view today.
Captain Dave Norman, chosen to help oversee night rescue operations at the World Trade Center site, traveled to New York three days after the attacks. “It was complete chaos: thousands of people, bucket brigades, crane operations going on, a mass of humanity throughout this 16-acre collapse site,” he recalled.
His first night on the job—one of 18 he spent at the site—Norman saw one of the rescuers emerging from the rubble with a New York fire department helmet in his hand.
“Coming out of the void, all he had in his hand was that helmet with a No. 1 on it. A very powerful moment, if you will.”
Norman, who works on one of the county’s two Urban Search and Rescue teams,Task Force 103 based in Pico Rivera, said it is hard to convey the full force of what went on in New York. “You really can’t explain it,” he said.
But he knows his 9/11 experiences, along with his wife’s recent bout with cancer, have changed how he looks at things.
“It’s a reminder of how lucky we are to be alive, contributing and having a purpose, not only in your professional life but in your personal life and your relationships. Are you contributing enough? Being the best person you can be? These were just ordinary people, heading to work. Just like that, the world changed.”
One of Norman’s colleagues, Battalion Chief Larry Collins, also got the call to head east after the attacks. He recently reflected on it all in an article he wrote for the firefighter publication “Straight Streams.”
“Those of us who responded from the West Coast saw first-hand what a catastrophic terrorist attack looks like, and we’re forever reminded that it can happen again anywhere in our nation,” he wrote.
For Collins, the losses that day were as much personal as professional: Ray Downey, the New York fire department deputy chief with whom he’d long taught rescue operations classes, was among the hundreds of FDNY firefighters killed that day in the towers.
Had New York been spared, Downey almost certainly would have reported to the Pentagon, helping to lead the search and rescue response there. As it was, that role fell to a national cadre of experts, including Collins, who remembers saying goodbye to his New York colleague in July, 2001, after a class they’d taught in Baltimore, with their profession’s trademark sign-off, “See you on the big one.”
They jokingly agreed that was likelier to be in L.A. than New York. “It turned out both of us were wrong,” Collins wrote, “because three months later L.A. County and L.A. City firefighters were in New York digging for survivors in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.”
Collins, whose recent deployments include the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, was a captain when he headed to the Pentagon shortly after the attacks, helping to supervise night operations at the site. Since promoted to battalion chief, he now oversees stations in the unincorporated areas of Florence-Firestone, Willowbrook, and the cities of Huntington Park, Lynwood, South Gate, and Cudahy, while also serving as a task force leader of the department’s urban search and rescue team.
The expertise garnered after 9/11 in Washington, D.C. and New York, and at disaster hot spots around the world, has made L.A. County a safer place—even though most folks on the street might not be aware of it, he said.
“Those people on the fire truck are often some of the most experienced rescuers in the world,” he said. When catastrophe strikes, “you want people who have seen maybe even bigger things than that, and have done it over and over again.”
And, as Collins prepared to head to New York for 9/11 observances this weekend, he made it clear that the search and rescue wisdom of Ray Downey and his New York team didn’t die with them in the towers that day. He said those FDNY colleagues were instrumental in helping L.A. County build its own urban search and rescue team—a legacy of shared knowledge, and of pulling together in a crisis, that continues to this day.
“They helped us immensely,” Collins said, “and that’s the power of sharing that goes on.”
August 31, 2011
National Preparedness Month couldn’t come at a more appropriate moment. With the Northeast recovering from an atypical hurricane just one week after it was struck by a rare earthquake, the whole country is reminded just how tough disasters are to forecast. Preparation is vital, and Los Angeles County is getting in on the efforts.
“One thing we can be sure of is that emergencies happen, disasters happen,” said director of L.A. County Department of Public Health Dr. Jonathan Fielding, speaking before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “They’re not things we can project, but we have to be prepared.”
While most folks in L.A. County understand the importance of maintaining an emergency kit, Fielding points out an important aspect of preparedness some may not have considered–community cooperation.
“We have to start our preparation not just about ‘me,’ but about ‘we,’” he said.
“Connect, prepare and respond” has become the official catchphrase for an effective, community-based response. Neighborhoods “connect” by meeting to share contact info and resources. Together, they can then “prepare,” setting up methods of communication and creating a neighborhood map with evacuation routes. Finally, the community “responds” when a disaster happens. Emergency personnel are likely to have their hands full at such times, so cooperation is crucial to protecting all of us, especially vulnerable groups like the elderly and disabled.
The Department of Public Health’s website has preparedness tips, including ten things you should have in an emergency kit and how to create a family emergency plan. It also lists links to other important emergency resources. Residents can also call the Emergency Preparedness Hotline at 1-866-999-5228 and speak with operators in eight different languages.
National Preparedness Month is organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Red Cross and others. These groups have valuable online resources available to the public, available here, here, and here. The Red Cross even has a user-friendly tool that goes step-by-step through emergency preparedness so there’s no excuse for getting caught unprepared when disaster hits.
June 30, 2011
They’ll be watching the fireworks, but not like the rest of us. For them, it’s personal, a call to duty.
On this Fourth of July, the volunteers of Arson Watch once again will be positioning themselves throughout 185 square miles of the Santa Monica Mountains, keeping an eye out for illegal fireworks and holiday revelers who could spark fires in the tinder-dry hills.
“We don’t want a great family holiday to turn into an out-of-control, raging nightmare,” says Sharon Donaldson, public information for the group, which works hand-in-hand with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Like others in the group, Donaldson says that she and her husband joined Arson Watch after a brush with flames themselves. In their case, the “Old Topanga Fire” of 1993 blazed dangerously close to their home while they were vacationing in Hawaii. They watched the whole thing unfold on CNN.
“It was the worst feeling in the world. It was horrifying,” she says. “You’re feeling totally helpless, watching your neighbors’ houses in flames.”
The group was founded in 1982 by the late actor Buddy Ebsen after the “Dayton Canyon Fire” torched his neighbors’ homes and gravely threatened his family and ranch. When he learned that the inferno was arson, he sprung into action. Along with his daughter Cathy, he aggressively recruited his neighbors to help local authorities prevent future fires, forming the original nucleus of Arson Watch.
Today, Arson Watch is staffed by 112 volunteers who log 2,500 to 4,000 hours per year. They assist the Sheriff’s Department at the Lost Hills/Malibu station by patrolling, talking to the public and serving as witnesses. They represent an early warning system in case of an actual fire, notifying fire officials who can try to contain it.
“We are the eyes and the ears of the Santa Monica Mountains when there is fire weather,” says Donaldson, who adds that their presence alone can serve as a deterrent.
While there’s no way to definitely gauge the deterrence effect of Arson Watch, its members note that there has been only one major fire started in the Topanga/Malibu area since the group was launched—the fatal blaze that raced through Donaldson’s neighborhood.
Independence Day, with so many people in party mode, poses some unique and tricky challenges for the volunteers.
For example, on one recent July 4th, an Arson Watch volunteer was alone in remote Tuna Canyon, walking on a fire road where the public is not permitted. There, winds can quickly whip a spark into a wall of flame. The volunteer was soon overwhelmed by a crowd of young people clambering up a bluff to throw an impromptu “rave,” says Donaldson.
She remembers hearing his concerned voice over their two-way radios. Hundreds of partiers were upon him, carrying fireworks and smoking. Refusing his pleas to leave, he enlisted help from the sheriffs, who broke up the dangerous celebration.
According to data from the National Fire Prevention Association, illegal fireworks caused an estimated 18,000 reported fires in 2009, including 1,300 structure fires, 400 vehicle fires and 16,300 “outdoor and other” fires. In all, they caused a reported $38 million in property damage and 30 reported injuries.
The risk is especially high in wildfire-prone regions, such as the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has already recorded 33 major wildfires in 2011. About two weeks ago, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order devoting more resources to fighting and preventing the fires.
This 4th, remember that all fireworks are illegal in L.A. City, unincorporated parts of L.A. County, and in other cities including Pasadena and Long Beach. A few cities such as Gardena and Alhambra permit “safe-and-sane” fireworks–but there are restrictions on who, where, and when they can be used.
The penalties for illegal fireworks can be severe. Small amounts are confiscated and may incur fines, says Sergeant Mark Bock of L.A. County Sheriff’s Malibu/Lost Hills Station. However, aerial fireworks and others like M-80s are considered explosives, and can bring felony charges. If the fireworks injure or kill anyone, perpetrators can be charged with serious felonies like mayhem, manslaughter, or even murder.
Donaldson recommends leaving fireworks to the pros, and suggests contacting law enforcement if you see people lighting them.
“It’s illegal, number one, and it’s not worth it,” she said. “There are amazing fireworks shows everywhere; you can go see these professional shows and not put lives at risk.”
She and her fellow Arson Watchers will be in the mountains this weekend to make sure people heed that advice.
May 5, 2011
“It’s a tremendously huge job,” said Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Johnson, who oversees the department’s forestry program. The goal, he said, is to create “a defensible space” for firefighters to try to stop flames before they reach structures.
The brush clearance ordinance targets areas where there’s a “wildland/urban interface” and requires, among other things, the removal of brush within 50 feet of homes and businesses, Johnson said. Notices were sent to property owners in these areas earlier this year. The compliance deadline for most county residents was last Sunday, with June 1 being the deadline in coastal areas.
Johnston said property owners essentially are given two warnings. After that, the county steps in to clear the brush, charging the costs to the property owners. Last year, 93% of property owners complied, Johnson said, with the county being forced to clear only 32 parcels.
For full details on the Fire Department’s brush clearance program, including a list of private vendors, click here. If you live in the Santa Monica Mountains, check out the “Road Map to Fire Safety,” produced by the Santa Monica Mountains Fire Safe Alliance.
March 24, 2011
Add this to the list of potential catastrophes that come with living in Southern California: an earthquake-triggered tsunami washing over beaches and harbors and leaving devastation all along the coast.
The nightmarish images of powerful waves buffeting Japan after the March 11 quake there have prompted many to wonder whether the same thing could happen here—and how to escape it if it does. But some Los Angeles experts and planners have been focused on the local tsunami threat long before the first wave hit Japan.
And their assessment of what could be coming our way, and how best to prepare for it, is both simple and complex.
Costas Synolakis, who directs the Tsunami Research Center at USC, said tsunamis triggered by faraway events occur once or more a decade here, and generally pose a relatively minor threat to human safety in Southern California—although they can wreak havoc in the ports by damaging docks and disrupting shipping. A tsunami triggered by a large earthquake in Chile last year did just that, he said—though since it was a Saturday, its impact was less severe than it might have been.
However, a major temblor in the Aleutian earthquake zone in Alaska could pose a significant exception to the general rule about distant-source tsunamis. Such a quake could unleash a powerful tsunami that could endanger both people and property in low-lying coastal communities such as Marina del Rey, Venice and Long Beach, Synolakis said.
To better understand the possible impact of a hypothetical 8.8 quake in the Eastern Aleutian Islands, officials with the U.S. Geological Survey started work in January on their first-ever emergency planning “tsunami scenario” for Southern California. Modeled on the Great California ShakeOut, the scenario, when completed in 2013, will assess how such a tsunami would affect the region economically, environmentally and as an emergency response challenge. It also could serve as the basis for future tsunami response exercises.
Whether they end up causing minor or major damage, tsunamis that originate far away come equipped with one important safety feature: forecasters can see them coming, often hours in advance, allowing time to alert the public and evacuate beach areas likely to be affected.
A “local-source” tsunami would not be so kind. A tsunami triggered by a nearby offshore earthquake could trigger an underwater landslide, causing profound and fast-moving damage all along the Santa Monica Bay—with little or no time for evacuations.
“The landslide event keeps me up more at night because it’s far less predictable,” Synolakis said.
On the upside: it’s an exceptionally rare occurrence, taking place once every 2,000 to 3,000 years, he said.
The Board of Supervisors voted to designate this week “Tsunami Awareness and Preparedness Week” in Los Angeles County, part of a national effort that includes videos like this one.
Planning for any kind of tsunami in Los Angeles County is complicated because there’s no way of knowing in advance which kind will strike.
However, here are some guidelines to improve your odds of staying safe and dry.
Know where you are:
Tsunami “inundation zones” are located all along the coast. Check out this map for a more detailed look at the terrain in various communities. In Marina del Rey, recently-posted signs designate entry and exit points for the tsunami zone, and also point out evacuation routes. “We were fortunate to get one grant to do one [sign] demonstration. We wanted to show it could be done. We just finished it in March,” said Jeff Terry, program manager for the L.A. County Office of Emergency Management.
Make friends with your local emergency services coordinator
With fourteen incorporated cities along the coast, evacuation routes and response plans can vary. In unincorporated Marina del Rey, the latest evacuation map is here.
When the earth moves, get away from the water:
“For most of L.A. County, it’s simply a matter of moving away from the beach,” said Keith Harrison, assistant administrator of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Resist the temptation to stick around and watch the action; these aren’t ordinary waves.
Don’t expect a siren:
The best source of emergency information will be on radio, TV or online. Los Angeles County emergency response officials said it would be impractical and too expensive to install and maintain enough sirens along the coast to serve as an effective warning system. In addition, the county’s “reverse 911” system, known as Alert L.A., allows authorities to rapidly telephone every land line in the county with emergency information. To be even better plugged in, you can…
Register your cell phone number and e-mail address with Alert L.A.:
Land lines already are covered but take a few minutes to sign up to make sure that official emergency information reaches you wherever you are.
Sometimes the best way out is on foot:
In the event of a fast-approaching local-source tsunami, people in the tsunami zone may have only 5 to 20 minutes to get to higher ground. “Most places you walk up a couple blocks and you’re safe,” Terry said. Added Harrison: “On foot is what we recommend. Don’t get in a car.” For people in a high-rise building, the best response to an extremely fast-moving tsunami could be to climb to a higher floor. (But If there’s time to evacuate, leaving the building and setting out for higher ground would be the safer course.)
The county’s overall tsunami plan was approved in 2006. It’s a good start, but there is still more to do, Harrison said. “One of our goals is to eventually qualify for the “tsunami-ready” designation by NOAA,” he said, referring to the program administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Individual county departments have their own plans, and already are working to incorporate insights gained from the recent events in Japan.
“When you look at the video of Japan, it’s apocalyptic. It’s almost surreal, like a movie shoot. It does definitely hit home,” said Santos H. Kreimann, director of the county’s Beaches and Harbors department. “It’s consciousness-raising.”
His department used its new Twitter account to send out messages about the tsunami advisory issued for the Los Angeles coast following the quake in Japan. And it’s been busy ever since with logistical questions such as how best to communicate with and evacuate “live-aboards” who reside on boats in the marina, and figuring out how to relocate the department’s earth-moving equipment far enough from the coast so it will be safe and available for cleanup work after the crisis is over.
“The Japanese event required us to really look at this closer and try to get things done sooner rather than later,” Kreimann said.