S. Calif. hones crisis response

Local Fire Crews Coordinate Efforts To Halt Blaze


LOS ANGELES -- A large, rapid and well-coordinated response - along with a little bit of luck - has allowed firefighters to successfully battle a blaze that at its peak threatened some 2,000 homes, but destroyed only two.

The effort against the Topanga Canyon fire has provided a textbook example 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 last month's 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 percent to 40 percent contained and was well on its way to being under control.

By nightfall, officials had 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 hamlets. The other struck in the hills above Burbank, consuming 800 acres but so far threatening no homes.

The firefighting effort began prosaically. Just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, Southern California's top fire officials were gathered, coincidentally, 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: Fire had broken out 80 miles to the west near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth and had begun spreading rapidly.

Within a half-hour, top officials from the city, Los Angeles County and Ventura County fire departments had begun to mobilize a force that would quickly grow to include more than 3,000 firefighters and 11 water-dropping helicopters.

Over the next 48 hours, the fire crews and police and sheriffs' deputies evacuated residents from about 2,000 homes and blocked the spread of the fire.

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

But they also benefited from lessons learned at other disasters, particularly the devastating 2003 San Diego fires, where 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 show. Throughout the fire, the commanders sat together at fire headquarters consulting experts and jointly making decisions.

As fire companies arrived from elsewhere in California, units trained to battle urban fires were assigned to home and structure protection, while experts on wild-land firefighting were assigned to tackle fires in the hillsides.

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

"This is campaign incident. It's huge," said Jim Featherstone, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "And we have to command all the resources."

Amanda Covarrubias and Hector Becerra write for the Los Angeles Times.

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