Fire Department Hawks Preparedness

By Tony Morris

One of the County's two, shining new Firehawk helicopters made a dramatic landing September 8 on the Topanga Elementary School playground, providing about 75 residents and officials with a special preview of this powerful new fire-fighting weapon.

Senior pilot Lee Benson introduced the new Sikorsky-made helicopter No. 19 which is one of only two like it in the world. Los Angeles County owns them both. They are specially modified Blackhawk military helicopters that carry 1,000 gallons of water, flame retardant, emergency medical and rescue equipment, and up to 12 fire crew members.

VOL. 25 NO. 19
September 20 - October 3, 2001


The Firehawk arrives...

The arrival of the giant yellow, black and white helicopter was the opening attraction at a wildfire-preparedness meeting sponsored by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and several local groups.

...and lands at Topanga Elementary.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky spoke at the meeting and stressed the need to take brush clearance seriously.

"We are overdue for a fire in areas that have not burned for 30 years," Zev said.

Senior pilot Lee Benson introduces one of the County's two new Firehawk helicopters at the Topanga fire preparedness meeting.

He urged those present to use the information at the meeting and to be prepared. Special mention was made of the partnership between the County and T-CEP, Allen Emerson and the Arson Watch, and the Equine Response Team.

The Supervisor proclaimed the Los Angeles County Fire Department "the best fire department in the world, the most versatile group of men and women."

With the Fire Department's innovations, he said, "We are blazing the trail."

He added that the County will continue to lease two SuperScoopers from the province of Quebec to assist with fire fighting during the height of the fire season from October through December.

Ken Smith shows his son Alexander the inside of the Firehawk, Rebecca Mazur, age 8, takes a break from a day working on the school nature trail to check out the new helicopter.

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Dyer, who once served as a captain at Station 69, served as moderator at the meeting. He acknowledged the close working relationship between the County Fire Department and volunteer agencies such as T-CEP, Arson Watch and the Topanga Citizens' Firesafe Committee.

Dyer also introduced Assistant Fire Chief Jim Ryland, Assistant Chief of Forestry Herb Spitzer, Captain Jim Glazer of the Lost Hills Sheriff's Department, Officer Tim Snyder of the CHP and Kaye Michelson with the Department of Animal Control.

Dyer presented video excerpts of a documentary on the 1991 Oakland fire--the fourth worst fire disaster in the history of the country, with 25 dead and 3,000 structures burned--and of the Topanga-Malibu fire of 1993. Dyer's thorough presentation included an analysis of the topography, vegetation and conditions for wildfires. Of particular importance to residents was a review of critical steps to be taken to survive when a wildfire threatens homes. In the event of a major wildfire, Dyer urged those present to learn where the seven Residential Assembly Points are in the Canyon, which will provide a safe location should residents be unable to return to their homes or face evacuation.

Fred Feer, author of the 56-page booklet, "Evacuating Topanga: Risks, Choices, and Responsibilities," which was sent to every postal address in the Canyon last year, advised families to discuss plans for evacuation and involve their children in the planning. But most important, said Feer, "It's the hesitation of not leaving your house when you should which is critical in wildfire emergencies."

Later in the meeting Pat Mac Neil of T-CEP gave information to the audience about the four Red Cross shelters in Topanga.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, center, poses with Dan Fournier, left, and senior pilot Lee Benson, right, in front of the Firehawk helicopter.

Mac Neil also said that T-CEP is now selling a handkerchief illustrated with a map of the Canyon and essential emergency information in English and Spanish for $8.

Allen Emerson of Arson Watch urged residents not to use metal-bladed equipment to clear brush, as sparks from the blades can start fires. He also reminded everyone that if there is a fire, they should call 911 immediately and not try to reach the Fire Department. He cautioned smokers to smoke inside their cars, not outside. Emerson also said Arson Watch needs more volunteers during the week, and thanked the community for helping to raise funds for the program's new white Ford van.

David Totheroh of the Topanga Citizens' Firesafe Committee urged Topanga residents to be prepared for wildfire emergencies. Totheroh said the cooperation between the Fire Department, the Firesafe Committee and other volunteer organizations in Topanga is working effectively.

Topanga resident Tom Mitchell asked about how to deal with absentee landowners who do not complete clearance on their properties. Scott Gardner of the Fire Department's Forestry Division said that such properties should be identified and the information forwarded to the County's abatement program for action.


  • *Cali-Camp / Calmont School at 1717 Old Topanga Canyon Road
  • *Topanga Elementary School at 141 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard
  • *Topanga Community House at 1440 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard
  • *Topanga Christian Fellowship Church at 269 N. Old Topanga Canyon Road
  • Topanga Center at the "Y" at Old and New Topanga
  • Topanga State Park Parking Lot at 20825 Entrada Road
  • Open Field at 1400 Bonnell Drive

* indicates Red Cross Shelter


Students Try Alternative to Middle School


Ritesh Shah, 24, shown center in 1999 as a teacher at Topanga Elementary, has returned to the Canyon to help with a fledgling home schooling alternative to Middle School.

By Susan Chasen

Back-to-school time for 16 middle school students in Topanga has taken on a new meaning this year because they are not going back to school in the traditional sense.

Instead, they are part of a new, small-scale experiment in group home-schooling that is generating excitement among many Topanga parents who see it as a possible prototype for an alternative, public middle school option in the Canyon.

"Everyone's very excited and very enthusiastic," said Ritesh Shah, 24, the popular former Topanga Elementary School teacher who has been hired to direct the individualized study program for this pioneering group of homeschoolers.

It's still like going back to school, said Shah, "but everyone's kind of doing a new thing right now."

Currently, the mostly seventh grade class--with a few sixth graders--is meeting four days per week from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. at participating families' homes. Fridays are for field trips or optional classes taught by parents with special expertise such as filmmaking, cartooning, cooking, physical education and ceramics.


Shah was heading to graduate school at Berkeley to study education reform when he agreed to try putting a little reform into action here in Topanga instead. Acquainted with the parents involved from his two years teaching at Topanga Elementary, Shah wanted to give it a try.

"I can always go back to grad school," said Shah. "It was a tough decision, but this type of opportunity doesn't come up every day."

Shah already has some innovative ideas for his new class. For example, he will take a thematic approach to the traditional world history and physical science curricula for middle schoolers. His students will look at the history of civilization through the structures it has built, exploring the cultural and environmental influences going into the structures as well as the scientific principles of their design.

"It's a way of tying everything together in one package," said Shah.

The reason for this home-schooling study group, Shah explained, is that the parents were unsatisfied with the public school options for their children. They're too far away, too big and impersonal, and the workload too stressful in some cases.

"They just saw that their kids were not happy where they were," said Shah. "That was the bottom line."

According to Shah, this coordinated effort evolved over the last six to eight months among 15 families who had made a decision to home-school already. Unfortunately, he said there have been hurt feelings along the way because of the group's small size. But he defended the decision to start small and build from there. A similar project involving some Topanga students on the Westside, he said, started with about 70 students and quickly fell apart.

"We want it to grow and become more encompassing for more of the community," said Shah, who sees this year as a kind of pilot program. But, he also said it is important to acknowledge the research, the initiative and the commitment of the families currently involved.

Karen Hunter Quartz, a UCLA education researcher and a Topanga Elementary School parent, is strongly supportive of this new experiment in the Canyon. She is concurrently seeking a charter school planning grant to look at creating an alternative middle school in Topanga that would be available to anyone in the community. She sees Shah's class as an important model that might be expanded.

"It's enormously difficult to start an alternative effort...and sometimes you have to start that small," said Quartz. "I think it is going to be quite exciting to see what they come up with. Ritesh is an extraordinary educator."

A critical issue for a Topanga alternative middle school is the limited cultural diversity within the community. Quartz, whose research indicates that adolescents do better in small learning environments, is looking at the possibility of creating a consortium throughout the city of small schools that collaborate in meaningful ways and bring students of diverse backgrounds together.

"Our options are three big comprehensive middle schools...Shipping a sixth grader out of the Canyon to these schools can feel pretty daunting," said Quartz. "We need an alternative, small, personal learning environment.

"There's no reason we can't have that in our public schools. We just need to find a way to create it."


Shah said he made cultural diversity a priority even among his small group of home-schoolers. He said 50 percent of the students are from outside Topanga--two coming from as far away as Echo Park and Toluca Lake.

Last year Shah taught at an open magnet elementary school in Westchester where some children commuted over an hour each way to attend. The student body there was 20 percent each Black, Asian and Latino, and 40 percent white.

"I like that diversity," said Shah. He believes it is possible to attract students even to Topanga.

"The idea is not to just make this something for the Canyon," said Shah.

The transition from elementary school to middle school is not just difficult for Topangans, said Shah.

"Topanga is one of the few community schools that are out there. Then you leave that and go to a huge institution," said Shah. But in general, he said, middle-school-age children, from 10 to 13 years old, are still more comfortable with an elementary school model where students have personal relationships with their teachers. "It's a really difficult thing for the kids," said Shah of the transition.

At a typical middle school, the children change classes every 50 minutes, and their teachers see from 150 to 180 students a day and review an "incredible" amount of student work, said Shah.


Shah taught at Topanga Elementary School for two years. He left after the 1999-2000 school year and went to teach in Westchester. He has since moved to Topanga, where his impact as a teacher is still widely remembered and appreciated.

At Topanga Elementary, he involved his students in what he calls "community-based-action research" which began with studying the health of the Topanga Creek and ultimately led to removal of the wrecked cars from the creek--an effort that stands out in recent memory as a genuine community triumph.

This year his students will study homelessness, beginning with a comparison of its incidence over the last 30 to 50 years and as a kind of counterpoint to the structures-through-history theme, said Shah.

Eventually, he said, the class will try to implement ideas relating to the problem.

The goal, he said, is to make education more real by tapping into everyday experiences and getting away from the "input-output" model of education.

Teachers are under so much pressure to cover all the curriculum standards that they are forced to emphasize breadth over depth, said Shah.

"It's a real shame that education is becoming this factory model."


Dogs Poisoned in Tuna Canyon



...and Elmo died of strychnine poisoining.

By Tony Morris

Two separate incidents of dog poisonings on Tuna Canyon near Skyhawk Lane have resulted in the deaths of two Labrador retrievers. A third dog managed to pull through after being hospitalized.

According to Buck Schneider--a 20-year resident of Topanga--his family's Labradors went for a walk on the morning of August 26 as they did most mornings. Returning from their walk 45 minutes later, the dogs--an 11-year-old yellow Lab named Gelby and an 8-year-old black Lab named Elmo--started to have seizures. One dog died on the spot, and Schneider placed the other in his car and drove down Tuna Canyon Road to North Bay Animal Emergency Hospital. The dog died in the car.

Schneider said, "We feel it was an accidental poisoning due to somebody's careless use of poison. Sometimes the victim is not the intended deer, coyote or pesky rodent but a cherished pet." He also reminded Topanga residents not to use poisonous substances in a haphazard manner.

After calling the County Health Department to report the poisonings, Schneider said he was told that nothing could be done unless a "human is injured." He also contacted the Agoura Animal Shelter and was informed that no records of poisonings or animal deaths in the area are maintained by Animal Control.

In a separate incident on September 3, Abigail Bok's dog, Penny, was also poisoned. Bok, who lives near the Schneiders on Tuna Canyon, rushed her dog to a critical care animal hospital in the Valley who saved Penny's life. Bok said, when she learned about the poisonings of the Schneiders' two Labs, she and the Schneiders searched area trails used by their dogs and found nothing unusual except the remains of a juvenile coyote. The coyote remains have been sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The stomach contents of the Schneiders' dogs were sent for analysis and found to contain strychnine, a deadly poison. Schneider said the source of the poisoning has not been found and he warns pet owners in the neighborhood to be careful.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says that poisoning a dog is a felony, under Section 597 (A) of the penal code of the State of California, punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in state prison and a $20,000 fine.

According to Dr. Richard Martin of the Brentwood Pet Clinic, strychnine, which killed Elmo and Gelby, is used in California to control rodents and ground squirrels. It requires a special permit and is a deadly poison. The fact that the Schneiders pets died within 30 minutes of ingesting the poison indicates to Dr. Martin that it was a large quantity. Treatment for strychnine poisoning calls for evacuating stomach contents and use of a charcoal binder to prevent absorption. The prognosis is usually poor.

The dog poisonings on Tuna Canyon are only the latest of a number of suspicious dog deaths. Teresa Penner, who lives in upper Fernwood, said her family's three Dalmations all died within a 30-day period a few months ago. Two of the deaths might be attributable to natural causes, but at least one was clearly suspicious.

One of the dogs was very old. The second had been bitten two months earlier by another dog, but appeared to be fine at the time he suddenly got sick and died. The third, Bo, a young healthy dog, just suddenly died.

"That's very unusual and highly unlikely," said Penner.

Penner said she wanted to have an autopsy of Bo, but found it would have cost hundreds of dollars. She said her husband Max has lived in Topanga since 1949 and always let his dogs roam. But now she feels it's not safe.

In another case, a woman who did not want to be identified and who also lives in Fernwood near Penner, said her family's two-year-old, 95-pound purebred dog disappeared June 10 and was found nearby lying dead the next day. Based on comments from her dog's veterinarian, she is convinced her dog was deliberately poisoned, probably with strychnine mixed with meat or some other food specifically to attract a dog.

Her dog had been recently examined and was in good health. When he was found he showed no marks to suggest a snake bite or other animal attack.

The incident has left her concerned that there is someone in this area or coming into the area who would do such a thing to a harmless, lovable pet and that there is apparently no means of tracking these reports.

If anyone has similar reports or additional information to shed light on these incidents, please contact the Messenger at (310) 455-1303 or e-mail


Learn Pet First Aid

The American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles invites dog owners to learn Pet First Aid during National Dog Week--September 23 through 29--so they can respond to any emergency.

The American Red Cross Pet First Aid course is available at your local Red Cross for $31, and pre-registration is required. Dog owners can call (800) 627-7000, Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. or visit to enroll. Participants will receive a course book and be able to practice on pet manikins. In addition, a video based on the course is also available through the Red Cross. The video is not a substitute for the course, but together they can teach dog owners how to help save the lives of their pets.

The course will teach people how to: protect both themselves and their pets from injury, perform rescue breathing and what to do when their pet is choking, how to stop bleeding, splint broken bones and treat for shock. Dog owners will also learn how to prevent and handle poisoning, take care of pets bitten by a snake, handle sudden illnesses, and what to do to your dog when exposed to extreme heat or cold.

"Dogs have assisted us in war and in disasters. It is only fair that dog owners take the time to learn how to protect their best friend," said Charles James Health and Safety Specialist.

The Pet First Aid for Dogs and Cats video is available for $19.99 and can be ordered by calling the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles at (213) 739-5289, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The pet first aid video is made possible by Iams Dog Foods, sponsor of this video and several other pet first aid programs nationwide.


Got Coyotes?

By Marsha Maus

I've been hearing a lot of bad coyote stories recently and not just about small pets--large dogs are being preyed on as well. It didn't hit home until about a month ago. One afternoon I was gardening in the yard, when I turned to see a coyote 50 feet up the creek running with my cat Whimsy in its mouth! I started to yell, and desperately threw my pruning shears toward it. I missed, but the sound of the metal shears breaking on the rocks scared the coyote. He dropped my cat and took off down stream. I have a lucky cat, to say the least!

As I ran toward Whimsy I had visions of every cat I had ever loved and lost in that coyote's mouth, and I prayed she was still alive. When I got to her she was in shock--rigid, bloody and covered in dirt. I wrapped her in my shirt and ran to the house where my boyfriend held her while I searched for my vet's recommended emergency medical service. Within a half hour of being in a coyote's mouth, Whimsy arrived at the North Bay Emergency Animal Hospital on Wilshire and Euclid in Santa Monica. They cleaned her up and evaluated her. She was admitted for a few puncture wounds in the head, a broken eardrum, a broken jaw and shock--again, considering the circumstances, a lucky cat! They provided her with excellent care, and I credit them for their compassion and reasonable rates.

I think I see more coyotes in recent years, and am left to think their population has gone up alongside ours. It seems with their growth they have become bolder, with fewer boundaries. Until now my cats were out during the day and in the evening. But now, with coyotes having so much interest in our space I decided we would build a 20 x 8 x 8 foot welded wire cat/dog living area, with plants and a fountain and all the stuff cats/dogs want. It works great and they can be out at night too. I'm not sure how to control the coyote population, but I'm glad I figured out how to keep my little loved ones safe.

If you have any questions about the cat/dog area, post a message on the Mouth of the Canyon Bulletin Board at (Just click on "Mouth of the Canyon").


Edmiston Moonlights at Top of Topanga

By Susan Chasen

An official with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority confirmed that Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, is indeed a sworn Park Ranger who does assigned patrols and writes tickets.

The Messenger asked about Ranger Edmiston because of a letter from Pablo Capra, 22, in the last issue ("Busted at Top of Topanga," Messenger V. 25 N. 18, September 6, 2001) complaining about a ticket Edmiston reportedly issued for parking afterhours at Top Of Topanga Overlook. The letter suggested the Conservancy's director should have better things to do than spend nights "writing tickets in lovers' lane," but the MRCA's chief ranger, Walt Young, doesn't think so.

"He was out on patrol doing his other job," said Young. "It was nothing unusual."

Capra complained that he and his two friends had not seen the signs prohibiting parking after 9 p.m. when they arrived at 10:30 p.m. But Young said the 9 p.m. closing time is clearly posted.

"You can't move without seeing a reflectorized sign," said Young.

He said the park is actually open later than other parks specifically for people to stop and enjoy the view at night, but if it were open any later it could get unruly. He said the site has an unusual number of signs--at least eight--at eye level and headlight level, providing sufficient warning to anyone stopping after 9 p.m

Capra wrote that he and his friends had been parked for only a few minutes and were sitting on the hood of the car when the ranger pulled up and ordered his two friends to extinguish their cigarettes. He said later that they felt needlessly "hassled" especially because checking identifications and issuing the ticket took a half hour. Since they hadn't known they were doing anything wrong, he said he thought a warning would have been enough.

Young, however, said telling them to put out their cigarettes and issuing a $60 parking ticket was perhaps a lucky break for them because smoking in a Mountain Fire District could have resulted in a $541 ticket.

"Every Topanga resident should be happy that we're doing that," said Young, regarding enforcement of "no smoking" rules in the mountains.


Boeken Agrees to Tobacco Award Cut

Viewridge resident Richard Boeken, 57, agreed to a reduction to $100 million of his original $3 billion punitive damage award in his landmark case against Philip Morris, the cigarette company recently ruled accountable at trial for the spreading lung cancer which is expected to take Boeken's life.

Boeken had until August 24 to decide whether to accept Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr.'s decision to reduce the jury's $3 billion award for being out of line with remotely comparable cases. Rejecting the reduced award would have meant a retrial which Boeken's attorney said would be too stressful for his ailing client.

However, Philip Morris still intends to appeal this case as it has done in another case involving a $26.5 million award to a lung cancer patient in San Francisco.

"They were never going to pay a penny without running the appeals course," said Boeken's attorney Michael Puize. "Twenty-five thousand dollars would be fought to the bitter end."

Appeals of the case are expected to take several years and will challenge Boeken's $5.54 million compensatory damages award as well as the record-breaking punitive damages award.

According to Puize, Philip Morris can't willingly pay "any money" because there are so many more victims out there. But he is continuing the fight against the tobacco companies for what he describes as "trying to kill" people.

"My next case against Philip Morris starts in January," said Puize. "I can't wait."

Asked the ultimate goal of these cases, he said, "With a little bit of luck we'll put them out of business."

Boeken, father to three grown stepsons, moved to Topanga with his wife Judy and their nine-year-old son a year ago because they enjoyed their frequent visits to the mountains and they wanted a gathering place for the whole family.

At that time, they thought he had beaten his lung cancer. He told the Messenger in a previous interview that just a few days after the move he learned the cancer had spread to his back and neck.


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