TOPANGA, Calif. — Mark Winn was looking out over Topanga Canyon pointing to charred and burnt areas of brush. “We’ve had three fires here over the last few weeks. We had the Tuna Fire, the Palisades Fire, the Flores fire, all of it you could see from standing right here,” said Winn, a retired sheriff’s deputy and volunteer with the Los Angeles County Disaster Communications service.

Winn was leading a communications drill from 69 Bravo, a base and helicopter pad at the top of Topanga. The area is dotted with massive “pumpkins” filled with water for firefighters to use during fires in the area. For the day’s drill, he had turned the site into a hub, with representatives from the Sheriff’s Department and the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness or T-CEP.

What You Need To Know

  • Fire safety drills have been held in Topanga Canyon to help prepare residents as the drought and fire season continue

  • The Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness and the sheriff’s department partnered with the LA County Disaster Communications service to hold a communications drill in Topanga Canyon
  • Topanga's location high up in the Santa Monica mountains makes it particularly susceptible to wildfires
  • Many residents in the area have many fire precautions in place, bags packed, perishable food stored and in some cases have built fire safe bunkers

The goal of the drill was to practice communicating with residents in far flung parts of Topanga Canyon in a timely and streamlined way. Everything can deteriorate rapidly, he pointed out, in a disaster situation and it’s vital for the community to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“The reason we hold this is so it’s fresh in everyone’s mind, you should just keep going over and over it, like a test," Winn said. "You know the test is coming but instead of waiting for that day, study ahead of time, then study again. That way you’re not cramming at the last minute and panic.” Topanga residents were encouraged to practice, using any radio devices they had at home. During the drill, they were advised to go over their own evacuation procedures and plans.

Winn has worked in the area for many years both during his time with the sheriff’s department and as a volunteer. Ever since the 2018 Woolsey Fire burned over 96,000 acres in the Malibu, Topanga and the Ventura area, he’s seen an uptick in participation in drills and fire preparation. “It has changed enormously since Woolsey; people want to be more involved," Winn said. "People are preparing more now because they saw how fast the fire came from the 118 freeway in Topanga, to the ocean.”

The Woolsey fire gave Topanga resident Noni Shore the impetus to take stock.

Together with her husband, Shore has lived in Topanga for 20 years and has raised two children in the canyon. The past few months have been particularly harrowing, she said. “The Palisades fire was a big wakeup call … before now it’s always been the valley, but to have the Palisades and Malibu? Which are so close to the ocean, it can happen from any angle,” Shore said.

Shore recently purchased a backup generator, high tech HAM radios and has bags packed with clothes in case the family needs to evacuate at a moment’s notice. But she and her husband have already made a serious investment into fire safety; five years ago they constructed a fire proof bunker beneath their house. It initially began as a home office, but they realized that by building it out of cement, which is fire resistant, and installing retractable steel doors, they could count on a safe place to shelter. “If there was a fire and we didn’t have time to evacuate, and it was 2 a.m. and we got the call that it was coming our way, we could come down here, pull all these (the doors) and be safe as it blows through," Shore said.

They keep lanterns and oxygen tanks in the bunker office space in case oxygen runs low. Shore says that having the bunker gives her peace of mind, but she hopes they never have to use it. “The trauma of living through that isn’t worth it to me, I would rather get out early and evacuate," Shore said. "It’s really nice to know though, that if we can’t evacuate, we can come down here and hopefully be safe.”

Prioritizing safety as California’s drought and wildfire season drags on is of paramount importance to Mark Winn. As his communication drill began to wrap up, he said he was pleased with how well it had gone. “It’s amazing to see the community rally around for their own protection," Winn said. "The people here are becoming more self-reliant, they are getting smarter and safer about the way they built their homes … I’m overwhelmed by the way the community in Topanga takes this seriously."