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Saturday, Jun 3, 2023

A November Ritual We Can Do Without

FIRE! The devastation of fire is catastrophic, capricious, and all-consuming. It is also just about the scariest thing we face here in the Valley and the rest of the city. The recent spate of fires ranging from Montecito to Orange and Riverside Counties have brought home to us once again how Mother Nature can exert her ascendancy over us at will. As of this writing, these mid-November fires have resulted in more than 1,000 homes destroyed and more than 25,000 acres burned. My first truly major L.A. fire was unforgettable. As a young UCLA student in November of 1961, I remember standing atop Royce Hall looking out at the flames as they raced across a ridgeline in sight of campus. Eighty-five percent of all the Los Angeles Fire Department’s resources were thrown against the Bel Air fire. Robert Fovell, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA said that, “If you wanted to design a climate that was conducive to fire hazard, you invent Southern California. Here’s the recipe: wet in the winter, long hot summer and Santa Ana winds in the fall.” Just like the conflagrations of this year, the deadly combination of Santa Ana winds, intense heat, and dry post-summer brush, created the perfect recipe for tragedy. By the time the Bel Air fine was defeated, 484 mostly very expensive residences were destroyed. The Porter Ranch and Lake View Terrace infernos (or, to use their technical terms, the Sesnon and Marek fires) are just two more in a long line of November blazes that have victimized Our Valley. Between them, more than 15,000 acres went up in flames. The eleventh month is clearly accursed when it comes to fires in the Valley, as evidenced by these conflagrations, all of which occurred in November: Old Topanga Fire (1993), Topanga Canyon Fire (1977), La Tuna Canyon Fire (1955). Best and worst Like all catastrophic events, the best and worst of us is brought out by fire. We all warm to the images of food and drink brought out to the firefighters by grateful residents where they are engaged in combat. Elected officials unceasingly talk about the bravery and commitment of the area’s firefighters but even unceasing praise is not enough. Imagine going into the flames in those bulky, hot firefighting suits, endangering your life at every turn, and knowing that nearly every fire you fight can outrun you. And the spirit of community is heightened by these disasters: One of our local channels showed a front yard near the Montecito fire filled with clothing and canned goods, with a big sign: “Need it. Take it.” If that doesn’t make you feel better about your fellow man, nothing will. On the other hand, the arrest of two women found looting a near-burnt-out mobile home in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park that was one of more than 500 destroyed in this month’s Sylmar fire epitomizes the levels to which some people can sink. “Take ’em out and shoot ’em,” was once suggested by a police official during the Watts Riots, speaking of looters. Maybe a bit harsh; but not by much. Timely recommendations The Bel Air fire was more than 45 years ago. Here is just part of the lengthy analysis of that fire, from the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive: “Persistent efforts have been made by the fire department to secure ordinance changes that would effectively reduce the mushrooming conflagration hazard. To date, no legislation has been enacted to specifically counter this peculiar and dire peril in the mountainous portions of the city. The ravaged dwellings in Bel Air and Brentwood remain a depressing monument to this fact. “The people living in these regions will receive a maximum degree of security from fire only when reasonable and enforceable laws are produced to effectively regulate and control unsafe structural practices, brush clearance around buildings, water distribution, and accessibility within the mountain areas. Once a conflagration has begun, the best-trained fire fighters, most modern apparatus, and best tactical procedures can only struggle to restrict losses No responsible fire authority can give assurance that a conflagration will not occur while, at the same time, terrible conflagration conditions are permitted to exist. “If the Bel Air and Brentwood disasters are not to be repeated in the future, it is mandatory that conflagrations be attacked in the most intelligent manner before they have a chance to begin.” While progress has been made on some of these fronts, are our Mayor and 15 City Council members ready to look us in our collective eyes and tell us that everything that could be done has been done to minimize the likelihood of a repeat of the Valley’s November fires? Firemen never die, they just burn forever in the hearts of the people whose lives they saved. Susan Diane Murphree, Federation of Fire Chaplains Martin Cooper is President of Cooper Communications, Inc. He is President of the Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission, Founding President of The Executives, Vice Chairman-Marketing of the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley, and a member of the Boards of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley and of VICA. He is a Past Chairman of VICA, Past President of the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles Chapter, and Past President of the Encino Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at mcooper@coopercomm.net .

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