Fire Alerts on Nextdoor Not Always Accurate

Annemarie DonkinBy Annemarie Donkin      August 21, 2020

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Fire Alerts on Nextdoor Not Always Accurate
View of the heavy bulldozer used on the “Shirley Fire” in Chatsworth on Friday, July 31, 2020. Photo courtesy of LAFD
The “Shirley Fire” in Chatsworth set off a firestorm of postings and comments on Nextdoor after hikers in Topanga reported sightings of smoke in the San Fernando Valley. Bottom Line: If you see smoke, evacuate to safety, call 9-1-1 and when in doubt, go on T-CEP.org for real-time updates.
On Friday July 31, the posting on Nextdoor was stark. “Fire past Santa Maria?” posted Bianca B. “This is looking toward the Valley from the ridge above Callon [Drive].” The temperature was already around 100 degrees with a light breeze, so the posting caused alarm among longtime Topangans who are especially vigilant at the start of fire season. “It is so scary to see a message like this,” wrote Kirsten B. in response. “This fire is nowhere near Topanga!” Still, others panicked and posted comments because they heard fire trucks in the Canyon. Because of the original posting and others like it, the Nextdoor app lit up with more than 50 comments, often criticizing the folks who saw smoke and posted instead of checking with online sources linked to Los Angeles County Fire (fire.lacounty.gov). “In the future, check out T-CEP (the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness) and download Pulse Point,” posted Karine T. “It’s very helpful to know about these resources living in Topanga.” The Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (T-CEP) is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization based in Topanga, California. “For more than 23 years, we’ve provided emergency preparedness education and real-time disaster status updates to residents of Topanga, Malibu, and surrounding areas,” says its website. Sean E. reposted from earlier comments while referring to T-CEP: “We were on a five-mile-hike and not watching TV or cruising the internet. We had enough bars to call Fire and let our neighbors know what we were seeing in real time. It’s very easy to Monday-morning-quarterback two hours after it happened. In real time, we opted to let people know. We are not sorry we let people know what we saw. I definitely would do it again and hope others would do the same. I did not have my phone or would have sent it from my Nextdoor app and not my wife’s. Sorry we said something over two hours ago in real time.” Experienced Topangans offered sage advice. “FYI, if you think there is a fire that is in the vicinity, please also consider not continuing your hike but instead get yourself to safety,” Kathleen H. wrote in response to Sean E. “Fires often appear closer than they are but wind and humidity factors can move a fire fast. A good indication that the fire is headed your way or is near, is the ability to smell smoke. Also, FYI, when there is a brush fire, fire units will move up to other stations as well as respond to a fire from stations farther away so it is common to hear sirens and see lots of fire trucks on the road responding. Pulse Point for both LAFD–V (LA City) and LACoFD District 7 (L.A. County) are for our area and the San Fernando Valley.” Michael C. of Topanga Canyon wrote in real time: “My source tells me the fire is in Chatsworth 10 acres, L.A. City, Ventura, and L.A. County on it. Be safe.” Indeed, as the fire in Chatsworth was being contained by L.A. City, L.A. County, and Ventura County Fire departments, Topangans went to T-CEP (www.t-cep.org) and read the incident report. T-CEP issued its Emergency Status Reports regarding the “Shirley Fire” all day in real time.
View of the “Shirley Fire” in Chatsworth as seen from Topanga. (In this photo, one can judge whether it looked close to Topanga….or not.)
LOS ANGELES FIRE DEPARTMENT “SHIRLEY FIRE” REPORT,
Fortunately, as more people checked out T-CEP and the L.A. City and County Fire Departments, word went out that the fire was in the Chatsworth Hills, closer to Simi Valley and about 12 miles north of Topanga, and the posts became more informative than panicky.

“Despite outside temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and a fire initially encroaching on several homes, firefighters waged an aggressive battle and defended a hillside neighborhood,” wrote LAFD spokesperson Margaret Stewart on their website (http://www.LAFD.org). “At 1:09 p.m. on July 31, 2020, the Los Angeles City Fire Department responded to a reported brush fire in the 8100 block of W. Ellenbogen Street. The first arriving fire company reported approximately two acres burning at a moderate speed. Fire attack was immediately initiated while the water dropping helicopters redirected from a separate brush fire to provide an aerial attack.”

Stewart wrote that the LAFD, under the leadership of Assistant Chief Surgey Tomlinson, established a Unified Command with Angeles National Forest, simultaneously deploying assets to structural defense and fire attack. Additional resources from Los Angeles County Fire Department assisted in the battle.

“Within two hours, the fire was 40 percent contained and all forward progress was halted. By early evening, firefighters had transitioned into a mop-up and fire-watch mode,” Stewart continued. “The fire was held at 20 acres and destroyed one shed. No homes or businesses were damaged. One LAFD firefighter was treated for a minor, lower leg injury. LAPD and the LAFD Arson Section arrested an adult male in connection with the fire. This remains an ongoing investigation.”

WHAT TO DO DURING A RED FLAG WARNING?
Had there been an actual fire in Topanga, it is recommended that people initiate evacuation procedures immediately and follow directions from emergency first responders instead of posting on Nextdoor. According to L.A. County Fire, generally Red Flag weather conditions exist when winds are blowing in excess of 25 m.p.h. and the humidity is below 15 percent.

On these days there are precautions you can take: Park your car heading out, windows closed. Disconnect garage door openers and use manual mode; have a “Go” bag packed and place your important items in your car—papers, etc. Keep pet carriers handy. Before you go—open drapes or window coverings, keep windows closed, close interior doors; turn on all the lights.

THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO?
According to L.A. County Fire officials and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, a potential fire that starts at Santa Maria Road and dirt Mulholland is the “Worst-case fire scenario in the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Retired Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Winn, who has worked with Topanga for decades, described what that would look like. “A fire at Santa Maria Road and Mulholland with a Santa Ana wind would burn south to PCH within 1.5 to two hours,” he said. “It takes five to seven hours to evacuate the Canyon—the math does not work. It’s not a matter of whether many people may die, it’s only a matter of how many and it could be into the triple digits.”
RESOURCES TO CALL IF YOU SEE SMOKE
Experienced Topangans know what to do at the start of fire season; they start with their local organizations, TCEP and Arson Watch. If it’s an emergency, first respnders will probably be busy responding, but keep their numbers in your pocket anyway.

T-CEP – (310) 455-3000 (t-cep.org)
Arson Watch – (310) 455-4244 (arsonwatch.com)
Emergency – 911
Fire Prevention – (818) 880-0341 or (800) 339-6993
Sheriff – (818) 878-1808
California Highway Patrol – (323) 906-3405

OTHER HELPFUL CONTACTS:
Caltrans – (213) 897-0383
Verizon – (800) 483-2000
Edison – (800) 655-4555
Red Cross – (800) 540-2000
L.A. County Dept. of Animal Care and Control – (818) 991-0071
Public Works (Bldg.& Safety-Flood-Road-Water) – (800) 675-4357 (HELP)
L.A. Unified School District – (213) 241-4500
Annemarie Donkin

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August 21, 2020

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