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.

By Jaime LoweJune 19, 2021

.James Grasso in his yard in Topanga, Calif. “I love living here, but I’ve quickly learned that nobody’s going to save me but me,” he said.Credit…David Benjamin Sherry for The New York Times

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.

Flames and smoke from the Palisades Fire were visible in Topanga last month.
Flames and smoke from the Palisades Fire were visible in Topanga last month.Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Mr. Grasso has a cinder-block bunker stocked with emergency provisions.
Mr. Grasso has a cinder-block bunker stocked with emergency provisions.Credit…David Benjamin Sherry for The New York Times

“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.

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