Jewish Journal


October 6, 2005

Close Calls, Tense Moments in Fire


The Topanga Canyon Fire moves into Las Virgenes Canyon, home of Congregation Or Ami, on Thursday, Sept. 29. Photo by Adam Wills

The Topanga Canyon Fire moves into Las Virgenes Canyon, home of Congregation Or Ami, on Thursday, Sept. 29. Photo by Adam Wills

Jeff and Liz Kramer and their three teenage sons could only watch and wait. The Oak Park residents paced the sidewalk in front of their home on Thursday morning, Sept. 29, 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 Kramers talked with neighbors about whether to evacuate.

"The firemen keep telling us we're fine," Liz Kramer 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 Jewish structure was damaged. In Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the roof and a set of doors of the landmark House of the Book were damaged as a firestorm raged around the building, leaving the lush hillsides blackened and a pine forrest mostly destroyed. The intense heat also caused the synagogue's Yizkor window to crack, but the concrete structure weathered the assault.

The Topanga Canyon Fire erupted in Chatsworth off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at 1:47 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, amid high temperatures and dry Santa Ana wind conditions. By early this week, it had engulfed more than 24,000 acres, requiring the mobilization of 3,000 firefighters from throughout the state. Fire officials talked of imminent full containment, while also worrying about the onset of more Santa Ana winds. The estimated cost of the fire currently stands at $9.3 million, with the cause still under investigation.

The fire destroyed three single-family homes, three commercial buildings -- including one at the Rocketdyne facility between Chatsworth and Simi Valley -- seven out buildings, four RVs and 35 vehicles. The fire also damaged one residence and two commercial buildings. The blaze was one of at least three significant fires that broke out last week in the Los Angeles region.

Hundreds of families were evacuated from areas affected by the Topanga Canyon Fire, including Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon, Bell Canyon, West Hills, Hidden Hills, Mountain View Estates, Las Virgenes Canyon, Chesebro Canyon, 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. that 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 that 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 San Fernando valleys, synagogues reported similar situations. "We had more people offering space than needed it," said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim of Thousand Oaks.

The Conejo and West Valley have become a magnet for Jewish families in recent years, so there were bound to be scores of Jewish families affected by mandatory 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 davened later that morning at Chabad of the Conejo.

At Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Executive Director Gary Brennglass had examined the House of the Book by that 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."

While no synagogues in the Conejo or West Valley were damaged, area shuls still removed their Torahs as a precaution.

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

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, Mesivta, an Orthodox boarding school closed on Friday. Many synagogues also canceled Hebrew school classes, but most restarted this week.

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

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

Or Ami took up Koransky on her offer, Rabbi Paul Kipness said. His congregation usually meets at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center during the High Holidays, but the center had been requisitioned as a staging area for firefighters. Or Ami relocated its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services to the JCC at Milken campus gymnasium in West Hills.

"We couldn't be sure what was going to happen, and we were concerned about the smoke for the elderly and young," Kipness said. "And if the fire started back up, we were going to be in trouble."

Simi Valley's B'nai Horin congregation also had its High Holidays services moved. It normally meets at the House of the Book, which currently is without power. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute relocated B'nai Horin's Rosh Hashanah service to its Wapner Patio, with the hope of reopening the House of the Book in time for Yom Kippur.

"The fire got very close to [Brandeis-Bardin] on Friday, but the many fire departments were able to put it out," said the institute's Brennglass, who now has a new worry. Since the wildfire destroyed most of the mountain vegetation above the camp, the area will be highly susceptible to mudslides if heavy rains occur.

"What we're more concerned with now is when it rains and getting mud flows," he said.


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