The Woolsey Fire burned down their homes. Now this community has its own fire team | Forest fires
There is only one way into Bell Canyon and only one way out.
Winding cul-de-sacs dotted with multimillion-dollar homes meander through the hillside gated community, which overlooks Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It’s a quaint, private spot that attracts wealthy families and celebrities like Alyssa Milano, Shaquille O’Neal, and Joe Rogan.
But the hills of Bell Canyon are also ready to burn. Blackened trees and melted trash cans can still be found here, relics reminiscent of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that tore through the area, claiming 1,500 structures – including dozens in Bell Canyon – and three lives.
Locals say the threat of another disaster lingers in their thoughts whenever dry winds blow through the canyons. That’s why Bell Canyon took matters into their own hands. In 2020 they created their own fire department made up of community members. What started as a group of renegade residents has since blossomed into a highly organized and trained team.
Some were emboldened after staying behind to fight the flames with garden hoses when Woolsey rained down on the community. Others were intrigued by the possibilities of learning emergency response skills. Most are in their mid-50s and many had no previous firefighting experience. But all of them – whether lawyers, creatives or engineers by day – are now ready to show up when it matters most.
Garrett Clancy, the leader of the Bell Canyon Fire Squad, is a filmmaker with military emergency response experience and considers the squad the minutemen of the Revolutionary War. “We’re going to do something – we’re not just going to sit idly by,” he said. “Because it’s our house. We are therefore ready to take all the risks involved.
Clancy is clear that their role is secondary to that of county emergency teams. But as the fires continue to grow in intensity, severity and frequency, the demands on firefighters are growing. Today, more and more individuals and communities are taking protection and prevention into their own hands.
“In some of the tragedies we experience in California, no local fire department has enough resources and they have to figure out what they can save and what they can let burn,” says resident Greg McHugh, who helped lead the community’s efforts to protect themselves from the fire. “Unfortunately, it’s the truth – and you have to help yourself.”
For neighborhoods like Bell Canyon, the proactive approach is also aided by wealth. A CalFire Affiliate nonprofit has made $1.3 million available in 2021 to support risk mitigation projects, with a particular focus on helping vulnerable communities. But the Bell Canyon Volunteer Service and its Fire Safety Council, a group led by McHugh that educates the public about protecting their homes from fires, have benefited from the wealth within the community.
The local homeowners association donated about $25,000 to the new fire department, and neighbors donated hundreds of thousands more. Areas with fewer resources are likely to face greater barriers that set them apart from their wealthy neighbours, adding to the divide already felt in times of disaster.
“A significantly less affluent community without a homeowners association should find a fiduciary sponsor,” McHugh says, advising such communities to seek help from legal aid offices to set up their own risk-mitigating fire safety board.
“First in, last out”
The crew consists of 16 members. They acquired three trucks, over a mile of hose, and communication tools, including radios at each of the members’ homes. They hold regular drills out of the Bell Canyon Equestrian Center.
There’s a joke in the department that they acquired their first fire truck only after a member got drunk and impulsively bought it. Clancy recalls when he got the call that the small, burgeoning department was suddenly much better equipped. “That was the catalyst for taking a big step forward,” Clancy says.
Some members also have formal emergency response experience, including Boris Donia, who grew up in Bell Canyon and, at 24, is the youngest of the crew. Trained as a forest firefighter, Donia was instrumental in teaching them how to use the equipment and connecting them to training opportunities. Clancy called him to help with their first truck.
“They had no idea how to run it or how to pump it,” says Donia. He now holds the position of Deputy Chief.
Even those unable to fight fires can help, like Len, 82, one of Bell Canyon’s longtime residents, who maintains vehicles and outfits trucks with parts built in a machine shop at his garage.
The crew has yet to fight a large fire. But he rendered other services. There have already been nearly 100 calls for help. They moved rattlesnakes (a common complaint), helped during torrential rains that produced mud and flooding, and were first on the scene when an older man fell off a cliff ( the man survived).
“People in the community seem grateful that we’re here,” says Chief Clancy. “We do all the things you could call the regular fire department for.”
Noting that it takes county firefighters an additional 10 to 15 minutes to reach the community gate and an additional 8 minutes to get to the farthest houses in the canyon, Clancy is proud that his team is moving quickly. “We can get to a scene in minutes,” he says.
“Our motto is first in, last out,” says Donia of the volunteer team. “In the event of another Woolsey fire or another small brush fire incident, we are here for our community,” he adds. “We took the time to learn the canyon inside and out.”
“Now we know what to do”
The crew helped residents – old and new – feel safer despite the growing risks.
“I don’t remember always living in fear every time the wind blew,” Ashley Forchelli says of their reality following the ferocious Woolsey fire. “But I feel like the crew we have now could have stemmed the spread of the fire.”
Forchelli said residents who stayed to help fight the Woolsey Fire were able to spare some homes, but without proper equipment or training they did so “on a wing and a prayer”. “Now people feel almost ready. Like, bring it. We know what to do. We have equipment, we know who to call.
Jane Staley has been among the most vocal residents in favor of the crew. The house she lives in with her husband, where she raised her children, was damaged but not destroyed in the 2018 fire. They spent years rebuilding, but despair and fear still grip her.
“The feeling of helplessness was so extraordinary,” she says, recalling the fire and smoke that filled the sky and the sleepless night spent waiting in a nearby McDonalds parking lot. “Now that I’ve rebuilt, I don’t know,” she says. “I will go down with the ship next time.” But, she adds with a smile, “I feel like now, wherever I am, I can contact Garrett and he’ll let me know.”