Virtual Evacuation Drill

Annemarie DonkinBy Annemarie Donkin

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Virtual Evacuation Drill
About 500 Topangans participated in the Topanga Canyon/Sunset Mesa Online Virtual Evacuation Drill on Thursday, August 12 to educate residents about fire safety. The Palisades Fire and recent Tuna and the Las Flores fires caused fear and stress among Canyon residents and highlighted the life-saving importance of always being ready to evacuate. Because of COVID restrictions, an online drill was held on Thursday, August 12, as a realistic fire scenario which progresses during the event—resulting in the “evacuation” of residents by zones. The 2021 Virtual Topanga Fire Evacuation Drill featured active instruction from first responders from L.A. County Fire (LACoFD); the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Department; California Highway Patrol; the Office of Emergency Management (OEM); and the L.A. County Department of Animal Care and Control (DACC). Organizers said that about 750 people registered and about 500 people viewing during the actual drill. Participation was encouraged and a mark of its success were the more than 256 questions posted during the drill that provided an opportunity for residents to ask questions and receive feedback directly from fire department and law enforcement officials. The “Maria Fire” Emphasizing that this was only a drill, the “Maria Fire” scenario began with a notice from the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (TCEP) Emergency Status Updates ( that a fire at Santa Maria Road and “Dirt” Mulholland had started about 5 p.m. The first dispatch from TCEP-Emergency Alert read, “A Red Flag Warning is in effect for the Topanga Area from 5 p.m. this evening, Thursday, Aug. 12, through 6 p.m., Friday, Aug. 13 for the Los Angeles and Ventura County mountains and valleys due to gusty northeast winds and low relative humidity. North to northeast winds gusting between 40 and 55 MPH, with gusts 65 to 80 MPH predicted. Humidity will also remain between 8 and 12 percent across the area. IMPACTS: If fire ignition occurs, conditions are favorable for rapid fire and spread and extreme fire behavior which would threaten life and property.” (Read the entire dispatch for the Aug. 12 Virtual Evacuation Drill at Assistant Fire Chief Drew Smith of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Division 7, reported that this would start as a “First Alarm” fire meaning that engines from the City of Los Angeles would send fifty engines with air assets, four to six rotary helicopters and fixed wing air support; the fire would be 100-plus acres at this time. “Our number one value is the life component,” Chief Smith emphasized throughout the drill, meaning that evacuations are the best way to save your life and those of your loved ones. For the “Maria Fire,” considered to be the “worst case” scenario for Topanga Canyon, Smith said there would be “hard closures” on all the roads, and Topanga’s northern Zones 1, 2 and 3 would be ordered to evacuate north to Woodland Hills as the fire moved south. Later, Zones 4 through 10 would be ordered to evacuate south to PCH and to Santa Monica. (Zone 10 East & West was added to the nine Topanga Zones to include Sunset Mesa located east and west of Topanga at PCH). Evacuation centers would be Taft High School in Woodland Hills to the north and Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades. Large animals would be evacuated north to L.A. Pierce College in Woodland Hills and small animals to the Los Angeles County Animal Shelter in Agoura Hills. At this point, Captain Smith said a Command Post would be set up in a safe location to conduct the “Maria Fire” with assistance from the CHP, OEM, the Sheriff’s Department, and Animal Care and Control. Deputy Michael Cerveny of the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department said that at this point, field officers would be dispatched throughout the canyon to alert residents to the emergency and to the issued Evacuation Order. “Once an evacuation is determined, we would issue evacuation notices to residents,” Deputy Cerveny said. “We do this by knocking on doors, loud speakers and sirens depending on the area and locations. For the SAGES and the elderly, we can assist those who cannot evacuate on their own. This would become a “mutual-aid,” operation where we call in support from Lancaster to San Dimas to get more personnel and additional manpower.” Captain Dennis Ford of the West Valley CHP said his agency would be enforcing the hard road closures at Topanga Canyon Blvd. and Mulholland to the north and TCB at PCH to the south. “The CHP is committed to helping the Sheriff’s Department with the evacuation,” Captain Ford said. “We need to block access to TCB completely and keep one lane open for emergencies and one for the evacuation of residents. Life safety is always our number one priority. The road is used for fire incidents and it is unsafe to allow residents access; one accident can derail firefighting efforts and bring the road to a standstill.” Sergeant Paul Maradiaga of Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control urged all residents to have a plan in place for evacuation. “For large animals, you would go to Pierce College in Woodland Hills,” he said. “For a rapidly moving fire, do not release animals on the main road, shelter in place and keep your animals secure…do not turn your horses loose! Instead, have them microchipped and have a leather halter on them with information.” Sgt. Maradiaga said small animals would go to the county animal shelter in Agoura Hills. Just as it would happen in an active incident, the “Maria Fire” was updated every hour on the radio and the TCEP Emergency Alert website. The final statistics were sobering: On Aug. 12 at 11 p.m., there was an evacuation order for zones 1-10. The fire reached PCH at Tuna by 11 p.m., burning approximately 12,000 acres with 10 percent containment. About 7,000 structures were threatened and the number of structures damaged or destroyed was unknown. According to LACoFD, assigned resources were 500 engines with 40 hand crews, eight helicopters and four air tankers with approximately 2,500 firefighters and personnel on scene. “Once the fire was out, repopulation after a major fire event could take days or weeks,” Deputy Cerveny said. “This is taken very, very seriously with roadblocks, dangerous debris, landslides, and rocks; there will be no power. If we open too early, it would leave your home unprotected. To get back in, you must have either a Topanga Access Card or have photo ID with your physical address.” Because the power would be out, Dave Ford with Southern California Edison (SCE) said residents should have multiple sources of information, including radios and/or car radios. Ford spoke of the repopulation challenge in terms of the evacuation drill: “SCE has been cleared to request access for a parcel of land north of restoration planning to reenergize our circuits,” he said, adding that power would be provided at the shelters with cell phone chargers available where customers have been housed. Captain Dennis Ford of the West Valley CHP said life safety is the most important thing and the CHP will not open roads until it is safe. “It would involve Caltrans,” he said. “Every incident is different and represents different risks. Assistant Chief Drew Smith addressed the question of “how do we prepare?” “The fire department, OEM, public works, law enforcement, and TCEP, all work together,” he said. “Fire agencies meet monthly and we have robust drills throughout year; we emphasize public safety during a wildfire. We devote a significant amount of resources to make us better during many years of fighting fires in the Santa Monica Mountains. We are proactive with public safety being the most important thing during the worst-case scenarios. Thank you for your participation. Everyone knows we are taking this very seriously, that is why you are here and why we are here.” Follow-up and Preparation To prepare for a fire or earthquake emergency, please download and review your copy of either the “Ready! Set! Go!” guide from LACoFD or the “County of Los Angeles Emergency Survival Guide,” (; or the “Topanga Disaster Survival Guide,” ( The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains also provides information on the free Home Hardening and the Home Ignition Zone Evaluation Program (

The Topanga Town Council Tips Its Hat to the Town!

Dozens of Topanga’s dedicated volunteers donated many hours this year in helping to bring the community together for the county’s Topanga-Sunset Mesa Virtual Fire Drill that was held on August 12. The success of this event is demonstrated by more than 750 people who registered for the online drill. It is exactly this collective spirit that is needed for Topanga to survive a real wildfire—more so now than ever before—because the reality is that we are all in this together.
We thank all those who participated in this effort to make Topanga a safer place to call home. Special acknowledgment goes to the sponsors of the drill: Los Angeles County’s Fire Department, OEM, Third District Supervisor’s Office, Sheriff’s Department, CHP, Animal Care & Control, and the volunteers of the Topanga Town Council and TCEP.
If you missed the drill, view a recording of it on The online presentation covers: How a big wildfire progresses in the canyon; How to get alerts; How and when the canyon is given evacuation warnings and orders; Where to take your large and small animals; What happens when the power goes out; How to get accurate and timely updates; How the fire and sheriffs’ departments determine repopulating the town.

The Town Council and other special donors—IQAir, iEvac, LA County, and TCEP—donated items for the winners who participated in the drill’s survey raffle. Donations such as room purifiers, smoke-fire escape hood and cape, fire escape ladder, portable solar charger, cell phone charger sticks emphasized critical items needed to prepare their home and family for a disastrous event.
Annemarie Donkin

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