‘If You Move Out Here, You Make a Deal With Nature’: Life in a Fire-Prone Canyon
Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles County, home to both fire preppers and the fire fatigued, is a scenic, isolated world that has turned the threat of catastrophe into an everyday norm.,
TOPANGA, Calif. — The Palisades Fire that forced hundreds to evacuate last month on the outskirts of Los Angeles never got close to James Grasso’s house. But he watched it carefully from the hilltops in Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, with his emergency radios and pagers by his side.
Mr. Grasso, 60, a volunteer medic and an assistant director in the movie industry, serves on the Topanga Council on Emergency Preparedness. He long ago hardened his home, clearing all the growth within a hundred yards of his house. Last year, he outfitted an off-road U.T.V. with a 75-gallon water pump called a skid unit. And he has a cinder-block bunker stocked with emergency provisions.
“I love living here, but I’ve quickly learned that nobody’s going to save me but me,” Mr. Grasso said.
If Mr. Grasso is a kind of fire prepper, his neighbor Rose Wiley, 89, is among those who try not to worry too much.
Ms. Wiley lives in a modest home hidden behind a magenta bougainvillea, sometimes leaving her doors open so birds and squirrels and lizards can have their own wildlife corridor through her kitchen. During the 1958 New Year’s Eve fire, she and her husband walked the roads of the canyon all night as embers flew like fireworks. In 2018, she ignored evacuation orders and refused to leave during the Woolsey Fire.
“No power, no lights, no radio, no TV, no cellphone service,” she recalled. “I had some fried chicken I bought at Ralph’s and potato salad. It was just like going camping.”
To live in the canyon communities of Los Angeles is to live with the threat of fire. But a new urgency has emerged, as a statewide drought and heat wave have helped create dangerous wildfire conditions and have played a role in turning the California fire season into more and more of a year-round phenomenon.
Some like Mr. Grasso devote an inordinate amount of time and energy into preparation. Others like Ms. Wiley prepare very little. There are weekenders — Topanga Canyon tourists in Airbnb teepees who search for Instagram-ready backdrops and who often fail to understand the dangers of an ill-timed camp fire. And there are the homeless men and women who live by Topanga Creek and who some residents blame for intentionally and accidentally starting fires.
Officials made changes in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire in 2018 — Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange Counties now have access to three firefighting helicopters that can refill their water tanks at 69 Bravo, a mountaintop control center and helipad.
But many Topanga residents say more needs to be done. They have asked for clarity on evacuation procedures, warning sirens, drills and a plan for inevitable power outages.
Topanga is the kind of improbable canyon community that Los Angeles specializes in — Laurel Canyon, Runyon Canyon, Rustic Canyon, Benedict Canyon, Beachwood Canyon. They are mountainous and secluded neighborhoods and communities, each with its own identity and degrees of exclusivity, that have tested the limits of growth and hillside construction.
The geography and population of Topanga make it particularly vulnerable, and the Palisades Fire served as a grim reminder for many residents of the risks built into everyday life in the canyon. If a fire started at the north end near the Topanga Overlook, it could take only 90 minutes for the canyon to burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But fire officials estimate it would take seven hours for residents to completely evacuate the canyon — Topanga has only one main road in and out, Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
“If you move out here, you make a deal with nature,” said Bill Buerge, a longtime Topanga resident whose Spanish Colonial Revival home has had a colorful history as a country club, a gay bar and a gambling joint run by the gangster Mickey Cohen. “On the flip side of the beauty and history is all of that danger.”
The Palisades Fire started in mid-May, four months before Southern California’s typical fire season begins. Last year, 658,069 acres of California burned by June 11 because of wildfires — this year, 833,479 have already burned. And the number of wildfires between January and mid-June has increased from 20,731 fires last year to 26,833 this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Drew Smith, a battalion chief and fire behavior analyst for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, compared a potential major fire in Topanga to the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire that decimated the town of Paradise in 2018 and killed at least 85 people.
“Thousands could die,” Chief Smith said. “It would be another Paradise, and it’s not a matter of if but when.” He added, “Topanga is a literal paradise nine months out of the year. It’s those three other months you have worry about.”
Topanga — an unincorporated community of nearly 8,300 in western Los Angeles County — is surrounded on three sides by the protected, craggy Santa Monica Mountains. The fourth side is bounded by the Pacific Ocean. You can hike to the Old Topanga Fire Lookout, an abandoned structure formerly used by the National Forest Service to monitor wildfires, and on a clear day see the San Fernando Valley, Catalina Island, Calabasas, Malibu and — 25 miles to the east — downtown Los Angeles.
The town center is quaint. There is a post office, library, general store, outdoor theater, fire station and a restaurant named Inn of the Seventh Ray that sells crystals in the gift shop. Surrounding the main drag and mountain homes is Topanga State Park — 11,000 acres of protected land with 36 miles of trails. Famous for exuberant wildflowers and air laced with white sage, Topanga’s open space means abundant wildlife — owls, deer, frogs, crickets, coyotes and mountain lions, all of whom contribute to a dusk chorus.
A bumper sticker found on locals’ cars serves as the canyon’s unofficial motto: “Don’t change Topanga, let Topanga change you.”
Here it is easy to imagine the different eras succeeding one another.
When the Tongva and Chumash tribes lived near Topanga Creek. When homesteaders claimed land from the Spanish. When Tiburcio Vasquez, said to be an inspiration for Zorro, lived in hideouts with a bounty on his head. When bootleggers ran liquor during Prohibition. When Nazi sympathizers hunkered down. When blacklisted actors and writers moved to Topanga during McCarthy’s heyday. When hippies staged love-ins.
In the 1960s and 1970s, transplants lived communally, sometimes behind the town center in caves near the creek, and came to be called Creekers. In the canyon, there were drugs and there was music. Neil Young wrote and recorded “After the Gold Rush” while he lived in Topanga. The Old Corral, a dive bar, hosted local talent like Canned Heat and Taj Mahal. Regulars included Linda Ronstadt, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell. When the Beatles stopped by to listen to music, locals let the air out of the band’s tires so they wouldn’t be able to leave.
Ms. Wiley lives on 10 of the original 160 acres that her grandfather, Francisco Trujillo, homesteaded starting in 1886. Her father, along with inmate crews, built Topanga Canyon Boulevard in 1911. Fire roads in Topanga are still maintained by Malibu Conservation Camp 13, home to women-only crews of inmate firefighters, cooks and maintenance workers. The original Trujillo wooden family ranch house, a hundred yards away from Ms. Wiley’s house, still stands with a view of hillsides covered in chaparral and chamise and mature Coast Live Oaks.
Ms. Wiley has seen it all — the fires, the floods, the rare snowstorm. None of it worries her the way it worries others. In 1993, she waited for the Old Topanga Fire in her living room: “I saw it burn, I saw a lot of smoke. It was very boring.” Back then, she and Mr. Buerge, who lives in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival and recently upgraded his exterior wildfire sprinkling system with 16 agriculture-grade pumps, stayed behind in spite of county evacuation orders.
“If a fire comes through very quickly, I’m not going to leave my property,” Mr. Buerge said. “I’m very committed to staying here.”
In October 1942 in Topanga Canyon, a three-day fire burned over 20,000 acres and destroyed 40 homes. The following year, 53 homes were destroyed. Five years after that, 41 families near Santa Maria Road had to evacuate. In 1993, the Old Topanga Fire raged over 18,000 acres, consuming 359 structures and killing three people.
“The Topanga area hasn’t seen a major fire since 1993, so we know sooner or later we will face one,” said Sheila Kuehl, the member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who represents Topanga.
Fire has become so embedded in the life of Topanga that the community holds an annual emergency fair devoted to fire safety and preparation.
During the last in-person fair, in 2019, residents walked booth to booth, chatting with forest rangers and salespeople who hawked generators, fire extinguishers, ham radios and fire-prevention vents. Everyone who entered was given a raffle ticket and a portable cellphone charger. The raffle prizes were professionally packed evacuation “go bags.” Children tried on so-called turnouts — the black flame-retardant Nomex suits worn by firefighters — and posed for pictures with Smokey Bear.
Mr. Grasso, the volunteer medic with the hardened home and cinder-block bunker, attended the fair. He noticed that of the thousands of Topanga residents, only a few hundred showed up.
“Every fire season, the stress level just percolates underneath the surface,” Mr. Grasso said, adding, “I worry about people who say, ‘I’m staying behind, I’ve been through a million of these fires.’ I want to ask them, ‘Have you ever had the hair burned off your arms? Do you know how it feels to have your lungs singed?'”