"Going for Broke to Battle Blaze"

by Ron Russell
Photos by Cassy Cohen

Inferno: Residents of remote Topanga Canyon enclave ignored warnings to abandon their homes. As the flames drew near, they set backfires that saved up to 40 houses.

Into the wee hours, they watched in horror as flames roared toward their Topanga Canyon homes.

A few wondered if they had done the right thing by ignoring repeated calls to evacuate.

But something kept Shane McMahon and half a dozen of his neighbors in lower Topanga from abandoning their little corner of paradise Nov. 3, even after firefighters had given it up as lost.

Shortly after 5 a.m., as flames shot over the ridge above their homes and there was nary a firefighter in sight, they decided to go for broke.

At the last possible moment, McMahon and his friends lighted three backfires that with the wind's help zoomed up the ridge and met the oncoming inferno like a first baseman outracing a runner to the bag.

In the aftermath of the devastating Malibu fire, "Shane's backfire" was the buzz of the canyon this week, as die-hard residents credited the volunteers with saving up to 40 houses in one of Topanga's oldest and most bohemian neighborhoods.

"No question, if they didn't do what they did, a lot of us would have been burned out," said Domonic Anselmi, 25, who sells pottery and outdoor furniture nearby on Pacific Coast Highway.

Others complained that a decision by fire officials to make a last stand at PCH and Topanga Canyon Boulevard left their neighborhood of mostly older rental houses half a mile west of the boulevard out of the equation.

"We begged them to send us some men and equipment," said Samantha Gann, 40, a fitness trainer who keeps three racehorses in the community. "They just told us we ought to leave."

In the end, everyone did except McMahon and his friends.

"It [the fire] was gnarly as hell up there," said Robert Overby, 43, known in the community by his surfer nickname, Baretta. "These guys are heroes."

McMahon, 38, a surfer and construction worker who has lived in the canyon 20 years, was philosophical.

"We like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals up here," he said. "If there's no one to help us, we'll fend for ourselves."

McMahon said he had watched firefighters use backfires to squelch a 1970s blaze in the canyon. What he learned then, combined with his surfer's knowledge of wind currents, helped him decide when to set them, he said.

"It's not something I'd recommend anyone do except firefighters," he said, "but in this case it was either do it or watch our homes burn to the ground."

Long a hideaway for surfers, artists and aging hipsters, the neighborhood at the mouth of Topanga Canyon near Pacific Coast Highway is tucked away across a creek via an unpaved road off Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Vehicles must ford the creek to get there. During heavy rains, residents leave their vehicles on the side of the creek nearest the highway and use an elevated footbridge to get to their homes.

The community lies on the edge of 1,600 acres owned by the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which has been trying for years to sell it and which leases to residents on a month-to-month basis.

But few seem to mind the inconveniences. "This is like a last oasis," Baretta said. "Every other coastal canyon but this one has been cemented over already."

Several residents who asked not to be identified said they understood why fire officials were reluctant to send firefighters and equipment into the community with the blaze raging just over the hill.

"You get equipment into a cramped space like this and if the fire comes there's no way you're going to get it out," one man said.

On the night of the fire, most residents cleared out about midnight after officials first called for them to evacuate.

About 2 a.m., officials issued a second plea for residents to leave, followed by a third warning at 3:30 a.m., once the blaze leaped across nearby Tuna Canyon.

By 4:45 a.m., as it became apparent that the blaze would roar over the ridge above the community at any moment, McMahon asked fire officials to set backfires on the ridge but was told they were to busy fighting the flames elsewhere.

That's when he and the others took matters into their own hands.

The idea behind a backfire is to burn off an area in front of an oncoming fire, thus robbing it of the fuel needed to continue its march. However, firefighters say miscalculation or a sudden wind change can make the tactic risky, even when performed by professionals.

McMahon said that after he and the others set their backfire, a strike force consisting of 14 county jail inmates were rushed in to provide support.

"They did one hell of a job," he said. "I'm talking about guys who were cutting down eucalyptus trees that were still burning."

Only one house, whose occupants were out of town, was lost in the community, and McMahon said it could have been saved with just a few more volunteers.

And the reaction of fire officials to the backfires?

"For the record I don't think they liked it," McMahon said. "But privately we had firefighters tell us we saved the place. That has a way of making you feel good."

Times staff writer Lois Timnick contributed to this story.

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