There’s only one way into Bell Canyon, and one way out.
Winding cul-de-sacs peppered with multimillion-dollar homes snake up through the gated, hillside community, which overlooks southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It’s a picturesque and private place to call home that has attracted affluent families and celebrities like Alyssa Milano, Shaquille O’Neal and Joe Rogan.
But the hills of Bell Canyon are also primed to burn. Blackened trees and melted trash cans can still be found here, relics that serve as reminders of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that tore through the region claiming 1,500 structures – including dozens in Bell Canyon – and three lives.
Residents say the threat of another disaster lingers in their thoughts every time dry winds gust through the canyons. That’s why Bell Canyon has taken matters into its own hands. In 2020, they created their own fire department crewed by community members. What started out as a group of renegade residents has since grown 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 opportunities to learn emergency response skills. Most are in their mid-50s and many had no prior firefighting experience. But all of them – whether lawyers, creatives, or engineers by day – are now prepared to show up when it matters most.
Garrett Clancy, the chief of the Bell Canyon fire crew, is a filmmaker with emergency response experience garnered in the military and views the crew like the minutemen in the Revolutionary war. “We are going to do something – we aren’t just going to sit around,” he says. “Because this is our home. So we are willing to take whatever risk is involved.”
Clancy is clear that their role is secondary to that of county emergency crews. But as fires continue to grow in intensity, severity and frequency, firefighters are becoming strained. Now, more individuals and communities are taking protection and prevention into their own hands.
“In some of the tragedies we are experiencing 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 has helped spearhead the community’s efforts to protect itself from fire. “Unfortunately that’s the truth – and you need to help yourself.”
For neighborhoods like Bell Canyon, the proactive approach is also aided by affluence. A CalFire-affiliated non-profit made $1.3m available in 2021 to support risk-mitigation projects, with dedicated interest in aiding vulnerable communities. But both Bell Canyon’s volunteer department and its fire safety council, a group headed by McHugh that educates the public about protecting their homes from fires, have benefited from wealth within the community.
The local Homeowners Association has contributed roughly $25,000 to the new fire department, and neighbors have thrown in hundreds of thousands more. Areas with fewer resources will likely face bigger obstacles that sets them apart from their wealthy neighbors, adding to the divide already being felt when disasters strike.
“A substantially less affluent community with no homeowners association would have to find a fiduciary sponsor,” McHugh says, advising those communities to seek help from legal aid offices to procure their own risk-mitigating fire safe council.
The crew is staffed by 16 members. They have acquired three trucks, over a mile of hose and communication tools including radios at each of the members’ homes. They regularly run drills out of Bell Canyon’s 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 to taking a big step forward,” Clancy says.
Some members also have official emergency response experience, including Boris Donia, who grew up in Bell Canyon and, at 24 years-old, is the crew’s youngest. Trained as a wildland firefighter, Donia was instrumental in teaching them how to use the equipment and connecting them to training opportunities. Clancy called him for help with their first truck.
“They had no clue how to operate it or pump off of it,” Donia says. He now serves as an assistant chief.
Even those who aren’t able to fight fires can help out, like 82-year-old Len, one of Bell Canyon’s longtime residents, who maintains the vehicles and outfits the trucks with parts built in a machine shop in his garage.
The crew hasn’t fought a big fire yet. But it has performed other services. There have been close to 100 calls already for help. They have relocated rattlesnakes (a common complaint), aided during torrential rains that produced mud and floods, and were the first on the scene when an older man fell off a cliff (the man survived).
“People in the community seem grateful that we are there,” Chief Clancy says. “We are doing all the things you might call the regular fire department for.”
Noting that it takes county fire departments an additional 10-15 min to reach the community’s gate and another 8 min to get to the farthest homes in the canyon, Clancy is proud that his team acts quickly. “We can get to a scene in a matter of minutes,” he says.
“Our motto is first on scene, last to leave,” Donia says of the volunteer crew. “In the event of another Woolsey fire or another small incident brush fire we are here for our community” he adds. “We have taken the time to learn the canyon inside and out.”
The crew has helped residents – both old and new – feel safer despite the increasing risks.
“I don’t remember always living in fear every time the wind blew,” Ashley Forchelli says of their reality in the aftermath of the ferocious Woolsey Fire. “But I feel like the crew we have now could have stamped out the spread of the fire.”
Forchelli said that residents who stayed behind to help fight the Woolsey fire were able to spare some homes, but without proper equipment and training, they did so “on a wing and a prayer”. “Now, people feel almost ready. Like, bring it. We know what to do. We’ve got equipment, we know who to call.”
Jane Staley has been among the most vocal of residents in support of the crew. The home she lives in with her husband, where she raised her children, was damaged but not destroyed during the 2018 fire. They have spent years rebuilding, but despair and fear still grips 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 it out in a nearby McDonalds parking lot. “Now that I have 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 reach out to Garrett and he’ll give me the update.”