Topanga Canyon Fire

Doug Sherr

© Copyright 2019 by Doug Sherr

Photo of a helicoptor fighting a fire.

California is burning. California is always burning. Decades ago I fought a fire in the Santa Monica mountains  This story is dedicated to a helicopter pilot; without him I couldn't have written this story.

Topanga Canyon connects the Pacific Ocean to the San Fernando Valley, where the Valley Girls roamed. The Santa Monica Mountains rise to the east and hills that stretch to Malibu define the western side. Water trickles down the creek bed providing enough moisture for a variety of mature trees and bushes that keep the canyon cool on desert-hot summer days. In the midst of the urban horror of LA, the canyon is a rural outpost that mixes the best of Appalachia and Carmel: In the early 1970s, impoverished hippie artists of great talent lived in shacks and raised goats next door to famous rock and roll musicians and actors who argued with their agents while drinking goat’s milk. Charlie Manson’s first murder happened on Old Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Will Geer, Grandpa on the Waltons, had an outdoor Shakespearean theater, Theatricum Botanicum, at the other end of the canyon.

Near the middle of the canyon was a small group of buildings and a grocery store; it was the hippie equivalent of a strip mall. A little short-order joint, The Center Restaurant, which the locals called the Deadly Diner, was open. It served intense coffee, amazingly greasy food and had a pool table to occupy the customers who weren’t reading Variety. This was the main meeting area for the residents where jobs were found, consumables were purchased out back under a stand of eucalyptus trees, and gossip was invented on slow days. Back in the 1920s, the canyon was a summer retreat for people who lived in the sweltering LA basin. Many of the buildings strung along the boulevard and up the side roads were the leftovers of these summer cottages. Some were well maintained and some looked like they were going to collapse from fatigue. No one seemed to be in a great hurry to do anything. A few fancy cars cruising by reveal that money is hidden up the steep side roads, but beat-up pickup trucks and the occasional brave little Volkswagen camper painted with love and peace art show that some people are just hanging on. Topanga demonstrated that California Dreamin was a reality. The best description of the canyon for me was that the LA County American-LaFrance firetruck, Number 69, had a grill ornament from a Volkswagen van.

The laid-back atmosphere hid the reality that there is a serious price to pay for ‘livin the dream’. The creek that trickles down the bottom of the canyon has wrecked autos that date back to the twenties and thirties lying at odd angles and jammed against trees, carried there by an intense current that dropped them where they were. When the big winter storms come, the little trickle of water becomes a raging river. Hillsides collapse and boulders the size of a school bus can block the canyon for days. Then comes the summer when it never rains and the lush hillsides are brittle brown and waiting to burn.

On a point of land at the end of the canyon a thousand feet above the sea sat the Moon Fire Temple. Louis Marvin built the domed structure that had a hole in the top so that the full moon would shine down onto the fire pit. Every full moon he threw a party for anyone who wanted to come. Louis was a vegetarian activist who would load his dromedary into the back of his Cadillac limo, drive into the valley, and parade the animal in front of McDonald’s restaurants to protest eating flesh. The first time I visited the temple, the dromedary walked up to me, stared into my eyes and gave me a kiss. It must have been the first time she had looked anyone straight in the eye. Height has its advantages. We became friends and she introduced me to the vegetarian dog. While I never did get close to the watch-peacocks, the Black Angus bull tried to mount my newly acquired Norton motorcycle. The source of Louis’ money was a matter of conjecture, but he supported a number of people and gave to all the local causes and never seemed to have a job. I did hear him talking on the phone once as he was speculating in precious metals. His voice had the clipped preciseness of a businessman and not the quiet hippie drawl that he used the rest of the time.

It was the second summer I’d lived there and the main conversation at the Deadly Diner was about fires. I learned that the reason there are so many swimming pools in Southern California is not for the pleasure of a refreshing dip on a hot day, but to provide thousands of gallons of reserve water to fight fires. I was living with a talented artist named Judy, whose tool inventory included a full complement of fire-fighting tools. I prepped the 3-inch gas-powered pump and checked the hoses and nozzles. The pool held 30,000 gallons of water, but the roof was wooden shingle so that was not a large amount to keep the house safe. The mattocks and McLeods were mounted near the door in the garage.

Up on the Tippett ranch on the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains, two young boys were playing with matches. A little fire started, but before they could run for help, the fire raged across the ridge top. It then jumped the canyon burning back up to the area where there were houses. Within minutes the residents of the canyon were getting their gear ready or rushing home before the canyon was closed to all traffic.

Everything written about large fires is true: they are horrifying and beautiful; they are mindless and exhibit cunning; in a few minutes they destroy lives that have taken years to build. Hippies, actors, musicians, mechanics, producers, and goatherds were all out lugging their tools and getting ready to defend their homes. There was a time, at the beginning, when the mood was excited: when people were primed for the action. That disappeared quickly when the scale of the walls of flame showed that this was a big one. I tested the pump and laid out the hoses. For the moment, the fire was consuming the opposite ridge and had turned back down the hilltop burning the bushes that the initial rush had passed over. The first organization to respond was the local fire station with the VW emblazoned truck. Sirens told us that firefighters from Malibu and the valley were coming as quickly as they could. There is always that immediate governmental need to control a situation that causes the fire and police personnel to try to keep “civilians” out of the way. When the monstrous scale of the fire became evident then everyone was welcome to battle the inferno.

Fire management breaks down into several different tasks: cool the fuel, make a break to remove flammable materials, fight fire with fire. The fire companies ran hoses from all the available hydrants and the pumping trucks provided pressure to the tentacles of hose that snaked off in all directions to dampen the fire itself. Lines of workers side-by-side raked away underbrush in advance of the fire and chainsaws screamed as large bushes and some trees were felled to create breaks that everyone hoped would be big enough to prevent the fire from spreading. I’ve been in the furnace area of a steel mill and the fire room of a huge steam engine and that is the level of heat you feel on a fire line, but unlike the controlled, man-made infernos you just can’t step back for a break or go for some water; the fire in front of you is trying to kill you and everything behind you and it knows no fatigue.

It is a beautiful thing to see people who amble through life or live in the privileged world of big-time entertainment dig in the dry dirt hour upon hour to protect their neighborhood. Unlike steel mills and steam engines, the wild fire doesn’t blow a whistle announcing that it is time to go home. When you absolutely can no longer work on the line you stagger back and find some water and a little food, but you know that there is no one to take your place out there and the longer you are away the more the fire has gained. Down at the Center, the diner and the Old Post Office café laid out food and endless pots of coffee. Somehow, there was always a funny story to tell to break the tension, but then someone would yell that the fire had taken off in a new direction and the blackened workers took a last pull of coffee and worked back up to the front line.

That night Federal fire-fighting units joined the battle. They were arrogant, dismissing the local professionals and the canyon residents who were still on the line. I heard one Federal officer tell a group of locals who were crusted with black soot that they could all go home because the professionals had arrived. They looked at him with red-rimmed eyes and quietly suggested a variety of creative sexual practices that he might enjoy as they trudged back to the fire-line. I also heard one LA County Fire Marshall, in a tired voice, say that if the Feds were half as good as the locals, then they might have the fire out by dawn. As soon as the Feds realized the potential of this fire, they got down to business and worked with anyone who could handle a tool. In key areas, the Feds lit backfires to deprive the main blaze of fuel. Setting a fire to fight a fire is dangerous work. Being stupid when fighting a fire is more dangerous.

I found a young federal firefighter who was dragging a hose to work down into the bottom of the creek bed. I jumped in behind him and wrangled the hose as we inched our way down.

The fire had moved so fast that only the most volatile grasses had burned in the initial pass through the area. The fire was working back and consuming the bushes and smaller trees while the larger trees were now near the critical ignition temperature. Running a hose down into the creek was a dangerous thing to do, but it was a key area in holding the fire from coming back up the canyon to endanger the majority of houses and small commercial buildings just below the Center. It seemed that we were doing some good, but we had put ourselves in a stupid position. The heat was like facing a wall of blast furnaces and we were not wearing proper protective gear. The firefighter turned to me a few times and we talked through a rough plan of escape if it looked like we might be trapped. The roaring and crackling of the fire was much louder down in the creek bed and we had to shout to be heard. The slope on either side of us was too steep to climb out if we had to, so going back about thirty yards to a climbable slope was our only path out. The danger was that burning scraps would fly over and light the trees behind us. We’d be surrounded and dead soon thereafter. It happened a few minutes later.

A Eucalyptus tree exploded in front of us sending burning branches over our heads lighting some trees behind us. We were in a dome of fire; the only place that wasn’t burning was the immediate area we were in. The canvas cover of our fire hose was smoking and about to burn. We started to move back as fast as we could playing the water stream on our own hose and trying to open a little hole through the wall of flame in front of us. We were losing the battle. Then a blast of unbearably hot air almost knocked me down. I was afraid to breathe. At that moment the heavens opened up and a helicopter descended through the roof of flame blowing out the fire for a hundred feet or so around us. The blast of hot air from the rotor was ferocious, but it was our only chance. We dropped the hose and started running as the copter moved with us blowing back the flames and clearing the way. In a minute we were up to the road and safe. The helicopter pulled away to pick up another load of water to drop on the fire. We slumped down on the hot asphalt and gasped for breath. That pilot had risked his life to fly down into a solid sheet of fire to rescue us. Later I worked my way up to the staging area where the helicopters were loading water and found the pilot. He had flown in Vietnam and he said that you never abandoned your guys on the ground. He had seen what happened to us as he was returning for a water refill. I hugged him and he said if he’d known I was going to do that he might not have saved us. We laughed and he said his break was over and he was going to do some more drops. He told me to be careful.

The fire seemed to be contained and I headed home to check on the house. The hillside where we lived had not been threatened and it seemed that the fire might be out by morning. I had been on the line for fourteen hours and I was beat. Greg, Judy’s twelve-year-old son, had been standing by with the pump and hose at the house: He was young, but he could handle it. I took a long shower and fell into bed. I didn’t fall asleep immediately because my mind was still fighting the fire. As I started to relax and ease towards sleep, the ridge about half a mile away on our side of the canyon erupted in a sheet of flame; the fire had jumped the canyon. I groaned and crawled into my fire-stained clothes and headed back to the fire line.

When I got back down to the highway one of the local firefighters came running towards me. He said that a D-9 Cat, the largest caterpillar tractor normally used in construction, was stalled up on the main firebreak near Louis’ Moonfire Temple. They had to get an injector part up there quick, but they didn’t have a truck available and the road was blocked; he knew my Land Cruiser had a good chance of making it. I had installed a Corvette engine in the Cruiser and it could climb outrageously steep hills. I grabbed the box and roared off. I made it half way up the trail to the spot where two trucks blocked the road. I drove off the road and with four rooster-tails of dirt flying from the tires the Toyota chewed up the hill to the Cat. The driver was an older man who was calmly drinking from his coffee thermos as walls of flame hundreds of feet high flared two hundred yards from him. I asked him if I could help, but he said he’d have her running in a couple of minutes. I looked up the road towards the temple and saw a scene of biblical quality. Out of the fire surrounding the trail came a large blond-haired man leading Louis’ bull and the dromedary with the other animals right behind. He didn’t have them blind-folded, they were following him as if it were a normal day. The man was Bob Peno, Bob was often out of step with the law and living on the edge, but at that moment he was operating in a state of grace. I asked him if Louis was OK and he said that he couldn’t get him to leave. I jumped in the Toyota and drove up the trail. The Corvette engine started to stumble and I thought that there might not be enough oxygen for the big carbs so I spun the rig around and faced it downhill. I ran up to find Louis as flames shot up on either side of the road. Louis was walking around saying, “This is far out; this is really far out!”

From the top of his hill it looked as if the whole world was burning. I asked him to come down with me, but he refused. He had a thousand gallon water tank up there because he had to have all his water trucked in. I told him to sit under it and open the valve if the fire overran the place. I said if he kept the flow up he might not be boiled like a lobster. He gave me a fierce look and I changed that to a potato and he smiled. I ran back down the road and the Toyota started easily. As I was driving back I came up to a couple walking down the road as if they were out for a stroll. I stopped and offered them a ride. The man jumped in front and his blond companion climbed in back. They were going up to check on Louis, but Bob told them that someone was already doing that so they were walking back to their house, which was the only other dwelling up there. I looked back at the woman and I stared at her for a moment. I asked her if she knew who I was. She said she did. Seven years before, in Chicago, she’d been the secretary to a partner of mine in a small company. We had a dual-signature bank account and because I was out of the country on a project she’d forged my name on the company check. There’s a lesson in that.

Dawn is a time when you expect things to be better, but in fires and storms at sea dawn can be a real disappointment. The fire raged on, but I had no energy left and I went back home. I woke up feeling exhausted and went out to see how the fire was progressing. Much of it was contained, but the main road would be blocked for days. I took another shower that I didn’t really need and went back to bed.

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