Viewpoint – Responding to Fires: The Good and the Ugly

By Sue Pascoe

As wildfires raged this month in the Ventura area, San Diego County, the San Fernando Valley and in Bel-Air, we kept hearing, “We dodged a bullet,” meaning that Pacific Palisades residents were lucky that firefighters were able to contain the Skirball Fire east of the 405 Freeway and that embers never reached the thick brush near the Getty Center.

We were fortunate that the Santa Ana winds didn’t push the fire across the brush-covered hills of Brentwood into the back side of Pacific Palisades, as they did in 1978, when fire reached Will Rogers State Park, upper El Medio and down as far as St. Matthew’s Church, before a sudden flow of on-shore marine air saved the day in mid-afternoon.

The dry weather and strong winds remained with us through this past weekend, which meant that potential fire conditions were still bad—and let’s be realistic, according to firefighters, the new normal means that the fire season is almost 365 days a year.

Smoke over Pacific Palisades on Dec. 6, 2017 from the Skirball fire.

This means that on a dry, windy day, a downed power line or embers from another fire could start a fire in the hills above the Palisades that could destroy thousands of homes. We need to be prepared for a fast-moving fire that erupts suddenly in the night and is quickly upon us, as happened in the Napa fires.

Let’s look at what we learned from the fires.

Foolhardy. Paul Revere Middle School, with 2,000 students, held classes on Wednesday, even as Mandeville Canyon residents were asked to be ready to evacuate. A question for the LAUSD: Was the $40 a day for average daily attendance per pupil on Wednesday worth possibly trapping 2,000 students at the school as panicked parents tried to get to the school as other residents were leaving? LAUSD, ask yourself what a lawsuit would look like if those kids couldn’t get out. This is a dangerous geographical area, understand that.

Kudos. Palisades High School, with 3,000 students, did not hold school on Wednesday. It was smart of the administration to realize that getting that many students in and out of a high fire danger area in an emergency could be catastrophic.

Foolhardy. City officials allowing encampments in local canyons and hillsides. Many people live above areas that had homeless encampments, such as on Via las Olas and Temescal Canyon Road. The last encampment cleanup focused on the west side of Temescal, where volunteers found multiple propane canisters and enormous amounts of dead trees and brush. (We know, by now, that the Skirball Fire started from a homeless encampment.)

The hillside along Temescal Canyon Road is slowly cleaned by volunteers to help return the parkland to its natural state. Photos: Sharon Kilbride

Residents, it may not be your responsibility to clean that area below your homes of brush, but while you wait for the city or volunteers to do it, your million-dollar homes are in jeopardy. Hire a gardener to carry out the dead trees along the hillside—or keep harping the city. These areas need to be cleaned out and monitored.

Kudos. The Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness volunteers work ceaselessly for constant enforcement and cleanup of sites. By enforcing the posted ordinance warning about no camping in high-fire-severity areas, the volunteers and LAPD are able to discourage people from settling there. Residents need to help this volunteer group out. Take an occasional walk in the area and if you see someone camping, report it. Join a cleanup effort; you might be surprised at how hard the work is and how these volunteers do it for the love of community.

Foolhardy. Failing to be prepared for an emergency. This includes taking care of a neighbor. Do you have an invalid that lives in your neighborhood, someone who is dependent on an outside caretaker? Or maybe that person has a caretaker who only stays overnight, whose whole purpose is to call 911 if something goes wrong?

With an evacuation, a call to 911 will probably go unanswered—as well as a call to Uber and Lyft. As a neighbor, you have to be able to get that person out. Go talk to them, now.

Kudos. To Pacific Palisades residents, and there were many, who once they heard about the expanding Skirball Fire (with evacuation orders from Mulholland down to Sunset), soon had their car in the driveway facing the street, with the items they deemed important, ready to go.


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