WILDFIRE: 'I WAS THINKING ABOUT KATRINA'

Kayvan Taherpour was happy to evacuate. Last Wednesday afternoon, as hot Santa Ana winds whipped the Topanga wildfire toward the neighborhood's hillside homes, Los Angeles police pounded on doors and cruised through the area with bullhorns, urging residents to leave. At first, the 19-year-old Taherpour, who moved west with his family from New York last fall, wasn't sure what to do. His dad was using the car to pick up his sister, and he was home alone with an aunt who didn't speak English. But he'd seen on TV what happened to people in New Orleans who didn't evacuate. "I was thinking about Katrina," he said after he took shelter at a high-school gym. "It was definitely on my mind."

A month after Americans watched the terrible images of stranded New Orleans residents struggling for their lives, many Californians who lived in the path of the wildfire chose to get out before they faced a similar fate. Fires in the West are more common than hurricanes in the South, and in the past, plenty of homeowners refused to leave, trying to fend off the flames themselves by dousing their roofs with garden hoses and hoping for the best. But this year cops and firefighters say it's been much easier to persuade people to pick up and leave. "They've been great," Assistant Los Angeles Fire Chief Tony Varela says. "Because of those current events, they knew they stand to lose more if they don't go."

Seasoned by years of fighting brush fires and evacuating residents, officials knew how to avoid many of the pitfalls of Katrina. "We've had the 100-year disaster every three years," says Mike Bryant, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "We've learned from our own mistakes." Years ago, California officials recognized the need for a unified command and communications plan to coordinate the 3,000 local and state firefighters--a system painfully absent in Louisiana.

Even so, California fire officials say they've learned from the Katrina fiasco. Seeing that some New Orleans residents chose to stay in the flooded city rather than abandon pets, local fire Web sites began listing animal centers--so evacuating families could board house pets and even horses they couldn't take with them. Firefighters say that post-Katrina, they leaned a bit harder on those residents who still didn't want to leave, trying not so subtly to impress upon the balkers just how much danger they were in.

The blaze destroyed 23,970 acres, but the fire claimed just two houses and no one died. Still, the relief is temporary. California's fire season has just started, and last winter near-record rainfall brought an abundance of brush that is now brown, dry and ready to burn.