MALIBU — In the canyons of Malibu and Topanga, where a tree-shrouded retreat just inland from the jagged lips of the Pacific Ocean starts around $500,000 and spikes up from there, fire is a fact of life.
Up here, arson watch volunteers patrol for signs of smoke. Deputies enforce brush removal requirements around houses. And people spend the dry months between June and December watching nervously for fire trucks.
Topanga resident Tony Morris isn’t content to watch and worry. He’s launched what may be a Quixotic crusade to talk his wealthy neighbors into spending $50 million for two state-of-the-art water dumping bombers known as Super Scoopers.
A documentary filmmaker and journalist, Morris fled the 1993 Topanga/Malibu wildfire with his family, a few documents and his son’s bunny. He spent two days thinking his was one of the 350 houses destroyed by that blaze, which also killed three people.
His house survived, but Morris was reborn as a fervent believer in the fixed-wing CL 415s used extensively in Canada and Southern Europe to douse wildfires but are rare in the United States.
His evangelism has won him some local disciples, but so far he hasn’t converted Los Angeles County fire officials or cash-strapped county supervisors. So Morris is going where the money is — to the millionaires and billionaires who call these canyons home.
“The houses in the path of fire out here are owned by the wealthiest people in the world,” Morris said. “We think these people will open their pocketbooks.”
According to Forbes Magazine, the Topanga/Malibu area is the 11th wealthiest community in the United States. The median price for a house in Topanga Canyon is $635,000, said Karen Dannenbaum, who manages a local real estate office. In Malibu, a tiny fixer-upper is $500,000 and from there, she says, “the sky’s the limit.”
Two major fires in Malibu and Topanga in the 1990s destroyed hundreds of homes, and led to devastating mudslides. The canyon brush is born to burn, Morris said, but with thousands of high-priced houses and thousands more people living in the rugged canyons, nature can no longer be allowed to take its course.
That’s where the Super Scoopers come in, Morris said.
He and other locals spent $7,000 last year making a documentary heralding the planes as a fire-season savior. He is in the process of launching a nonprofit corporation, Aerial Fire Protection Association, and hopes to start picking up checks in several months.