Jewish Journal


September 29, 2005

Blaze Touches Off Tense Moments


Jeff and Liz Kramer and their three teenage sons could only watch and wait. The Sutton Valley residents paced the sidewalk in front of their home on Thursday morning, watching as the head of the Topanga Canyon Fire crept along a ridge less than 800 yards away, consuming brush and sending up billows of smoke.

"We've been up all night watching it," Liz Kramer said. "It started here at about 1 a.m."

As the Ventura County Sheriff's fire support helicopters doused flames with water assaults, the Oak Park couple talked with neighbors about whether to evacuate.

"The firemen keep telling us we're fine," she said. "But our cars are loaded, and we're ready to leave."

While the Kramer home was spared and no other Jewish homes were known to have been lost, an iconic structure of Jewish Los Angeles was not so fortunate. In Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, sparks fell and ignited a fire on the roof of the landmark House of the Book. The building's interior was not apparently harmed. A detailed damage assessment is pending.

The Topanga Canyon Fire erupted in Chatsworth off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday, amid high temperatures and dry Santa Ana wind conditions. By Friday, it had grown to engulf about 21,000 acres and required a multiagency firefighting force of 3,000 from Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

Fire crews had the fire 20 percent contained by Friday morning, shortly before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the affected area by air. The estimated cost of the fire currently stands at $2.8 million, with the cause of the blaze still under investigation.

Hundreds of families were evacuated from affected areas, which included Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon, Bell Canyon, West Hills, Hidden Hills, Mountain View Estates, Las Virgenes Canyon, Chesebro Canyon, Old Agoura, Agoura Hills and Oak Park. Among the evacuees from these upscale hillside communities was "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Shelley Berman, who has lived in Bell Canyon since 1984.

Temple Aliyah President Marcy Howard told The Journal she evacuated her home in Mountain View, a gated community adjacent to Las Virgenes Canyon, at 4 a.m. Thursday.

"When they tell you you're going, nothing counts but getting your kids, your dogs and yourself [out]. You don't know if you have five hours or five minutes," she said.

Howard met friends at the Calabasas Commons and then ended up at Jerry's Deli in Woodland Hills, where she said many displaced Jewish West Valley residents were congregating early Thursday morning. Howard opted to spend Thursday night in a hotel, despite offers of shelter from numerous friends.

"Everyone has been so gracious and so lovely," she said.

Around the Conejo and West Valley, synagogues reported a similar situation. "So far we have more people offering space than need it," said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim of Thousand Oaks.

The Conejo and West San Fernando valleys have become a magnet for Jewish families in recent years, so there were bound to be scores of Jewish families affected by the evacuation orders, not to mention the choking haze that hung over the region.

"We left at 3 a.m. [Thursday morning] and went to my mother-in-law's in Thousand Oaks," said Loury Silverman, an Oak Park resident who had just finished davening Thursday morning at Chabad of Conejo.

At Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Executive Director Gary Brennglass had examined the House of the Book by Thursday afternoon. "The exterior is OK, but the roof was damaged," he said. "We also lost a lot of vegetation. But thank God our other buildings and bunks weren't lost."

No synagogues were damaged, but area shuls removed their Torahs as a precaution.

In Old Agoura, the proposed future site of Heschel West day school was unsigned. That project has long been challenged by the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, partly over concerns that it might make a wildfire evacuation more difficult.

All told, the fire damaged three single-family homes and destroyed one building at the Rocketdyne facility between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

Heschel West, at its temporary site in Agoura Hills, closed Thursday and Friday, as did the New Jewish Community Day School at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and schools throughout the Las Virgenes Unified School District. In the Las Virgenes Canyon area, Mestiva, an Orthodox boarding school closed on Friday.

Many synagogues also canceled Hebrew school classes, expecting to start again on Sunday or Monday, after the anticipated full containment of the fire over the weekend.

Jewish leaders exhorted community organizations to find out what people's needs are in affected areas.

"We can make sure that synagogues that have been displaced because of the fire will have a space for High Holidays," said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Valley Alliance.

Or Ami's Rabbi Paul Kipness said his congregation usually meets at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center during the High Holidays. But with the center being used as a staging area for firefighter efforts, the synagogue's High Holiday committee was already scouting out alternatives.

"They say it'll be ours after Saturday, but who knows," said Kipness, who has already rewritten his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon around the fire.

One group will need other quarters for sure. B'nai Horin of Simi Valley had scheduled High Holidays services at the House of the Book. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute hopes to house the group at a different meeting area on campus.

Many of the evacuated families have returned home, even as fire crews continue to keep an eye out for hot spots and areas where the fire could break through and threaten homes again.

The Rothsteins of Oak Park were among the families who had a close call. Sergiu Rothstein had left his home Thursday afternoon to get pizza for firefighters keeping watch over his neighborhood. A half hour later, flames blocked his return.

He stood on the center median of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Oak Park, watching as fire lunged toward his hillside community only a few miles away.

"I was coming back, and the flames were shooting up 10 and 20 feet," he said. "My family called me and said, "Don't come back to the house."

When reached by phone Friday morning, Rothstein said fire crews had saved his home.

"Everyone was wonderful," he said.

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