PHOTO BY CARL GROOMS Firefighter ground crews maneuvered a 2,000-foot hose up steep terrain to fight the Tuna Fire incident on early Friday morning on July 16. They kept the fire at bay until aerial support arrived. This was the CH-47 Chinook’s first call since arriving on June 15.
Two brush fires broke out in Tuna Canyon within one week and concerned Topanga residents seek some answers.
A second-alarm vegetation fire started at the intersection of Las Flores Heights Road and Tuna Canyon Road on Monday, July 19 at about 3 p.m. Dubbed the “Las Flores Incident,” the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) reported that the blaze threatened multiple structures in the area.
Crews were airdropped onto the steep hillside and dense brush, according to the Emergency Status Report on the T-CEP website (www.tcep.org). Four helicopters and a fixed wing Aero Commander dropped water and retardant on the fire. As of 4 p.m., the helicopters had pulled more then 30,000 gallons of water from the Topanga Helispot 69 Bravo. Forward progress was halted around 5 p.m. and the fire was held at 15 acres.
The Tuna Fire
Just one week earlier, residents of the Tuna, Las Flores, and Big Rock neighborhoods were rudely awakened just before 1 a.m. on July 9 to the terrifying roar of water-dropping helicopters in response to a six-acre brush fire just below their homes.
Known as the Tuna Fire, five engines and 150 firefighters, hauling 2,000 feet of fire hose, responded to the fire burning in dense brush, again on the steep hillsides of Tuna Canyon about a mile north of PCH between Topanga Canyon Blvd. and Malibu.
PHOTO BY ANNEMARIE DONKIN Representing the LA County Fire Department, Captain Corey Lovers of Station 69 met with Tuna Canyon residents to discuss the roles that the fire department plays in preventing and protecting the public.
Filling up at 69 Bravo Helispot in Topanga, a Chinook helitanker (CH47) and Sikorsky S70 Firehawk were able to quickly suppress the Tuna Fire, dropping thousands of gallons of water throughout the night and into the morning. By 10 a.m., the LACoFD reported that containment was more than 50 percent and forward progress had been stopped as fire crews mopped up hotspots. LACoFD also posted on Twitter that no homes or structures were threatened by the fire and no evacuation orders were issued. They further posted that the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The official cause of the Tuna Fire has not been released, but a series of recent fires in the same general location caused LACoFD Battalion Chief Drew Smith to remark at a July 12 Malibu City Council meeting that the Tuna Fire was started by a campfire in an encampment in the area.
The T.U.N.A Group
Terrified by the Tuna Fire, the residents of Tuna, Las Flores and Big Rock felt that enough was enough and saw an urgent need to organize and develop an action plan to protect Topanga.
Calling themselves the T.U.N.A. Group, their first meeting was held on July 11 at Sabine and Malcolm Lesavoy’s home and, with approximately 28 neighbors, agreed to draft a letter to elected officials expressing their concern.
“The flames could have easily jumped the ridge, incinerating the canyon” the letter stated. “The heroic response of the fire department, helicopter support, including the use of the Chinook, worked tirelessly to contain the flames.”
According to the minutes of the meeting, “Everyone who attended contributed excellent ideas pertaining to public safety and prevention of fires that have devastated our area on numerous occasions in the past, with the most recent one a week ago, the ‘Tuna Fire.’ It had not been determined whether this was an accident by the homeless population in lower Tuna Canyon Road (on public or private property) or arson. Eitherway, this puts our community at great jeopardy.”
A second strategy meeting was held on July 18 to discuss a letter addressed to L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva; L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl; the L.A. County Fire Department; and the City of Malibu City Council to express the neighbors’ extreme concern over the proliferation of fires over the past 18 months.
The letter’s request stated that “We, the residents of Topanga, respectively request you take preventative action to prevent camping fires in the area and similar high-risk human behaviors to protect our lives, homes and community.”
A Fire Captain Responds
In attendance at the July 18 meeting was Fire Captain Corey Lovers, who addressed the group of about 30 people and took questions.
“While firefighters can put out illegal fires in encampments, we do not engage in law enforcement,” he said. Captain Lovers said enforcement is the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department in the County unincorporated areas of Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains, as well as in the City of Malibu.
While Captain Lovers acknowledged the presence of many encampments along PCH that could potentially cause a fire, he stated that irresponsible, but not necessarily malicious, human activity was primarily responsible for most fires in the area, including weed whackers on “Red Flag” days, sparks from vehicles, and camping fires.
He also said that there have been no permitted fires in Topanga or the Santa Monica Mountains for the past year and a half.
He was also asked what the criteria is for a response to fires, including the deployment of Chinooks and other water- and retardant-dropping aircraft.
“Each agency is responsible for its own response in relation to the specific incident,” Captain Lovers said. “It is all dependent on the situation.” He suggested that Topangans and residents of L.A. County sign up for PulsePoint, an app to receive fire alerts via land lines, cell phones, text, or email in the case of a fire emergency. PulsePoint Respond is a 911-connected app that can immediately inform residents of emergencies in the community. (Download PulsePoint at pulsepoint.org/download)
Also, in attendance at the July 18 meeting was James Grasso of TCEP and Co-Chair of the Topanga Emergency Management Task Force, who attended as a concerned resident, not as a representative of either of those organizations. He advised the group about an effective way of appealing to elected officials regarding the fire threat.
“Send a certified ‘Letter of Concern’ to the Board of Supervisors and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department,” Grasso suggested. “Put those elected officials on notice about the problem.’”
He also suggested that concerned Tuna residents install infrared cameras on a high peak in the area to allow a 365-degree view of Lower Topanga and Tuna Canyon.
“There has been a spike [in fires] in Lower Topanga in the past 6-8 months,” Grasso said. “Topanga is a high-fire risk area.”
Attend the Evacuation Drill on August 12
Join your neighbors in Topanga Canyon and Sunset Mesa for a Virtual Evacuation Drill on Thursday, August 12 at 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. To Register: eventbrite.com/e/virtual-evacuation-drill-topanga-canyonsunset-mesa-tickets-157701560613?aff=ebdsoporgprofile