Earthquakes, toxic spills, mudslides, freeway pileups—the possibility of calamity has always been part of living in Los Angeles. But things have felt extra-apocalyptic lately. The state has declared a drought emergency. The Colby fire seared nearly 2,000 acres—in the middle of winter. Mayor Eric Garcetti has hired a top earthquake expert to help prepare the city for the inevitable Big One, after a report revealed that as many as 1,000 buildings may be at risk of collapse.
If you’re reading this from your seismically unsound bungalow, here’s one bit of comforting news: Right now a team of Los Angeles first responders is likely practicing how to save you in what may be the world’s most elaborate simulated disaster zone. The Del Valle Fire Training Center, set in 160 acres of desert near Castaic, is a state-of-the-art $10 million film-set-like facility, complete with capsized tanker trucks, exploding barrels, and burning buildings. Developed by the Los Angeles County Fire Department with the input of consultants from the movie and amusement park industries, the center combines grueling physical challenges with sophisticated special effects for immersive, make-believe mayhem. Thousands of local police officers, firefighters, and paramedics as well as members of the FBI and Coast Guard have trained here. “We try to tax all their senses,” says Battalion Chief Randy Alva, the center’s key developer. “It’s all meant to duplicate the Bad Day, whether it’s a terrorist attack or major accident.” Alva recently started consulting with officials around the world who aim to build their own versions. Here are three of L.A.’s most serious threats—and the strategies used to stop them.
Highway Hell: Crashing your car is bad; crashing it into a truck loaded with flammable chemicals is worse. On the center’s 500-foot stretch of freeway, firefighters battle flames erupting from an overturned tanker truck and contain the “chemicals” spilling out of it while recorded sounds of traffic and shrieking victims wail around them.
Trouble in the Rubble: Many quake casualties are the result of being trapped in collapsed building debris. Search-and-rescue workers practice finding volunteer “victims” inside piles of shattered concrete, steel bars, and broken furniture, then digging them out with everything from jackhammers to crowbars to bare hands.
Warehouse War zone: Residents often forget that Los Angeles is full of industrial sites—until something goes kablooey. In the center’s faux warehouse, fake haz-mat spills erupt in real flames, while theatrical lighting, swirling “fog,” and the stench of “poisonous” gases force officials to quickly figure out what the problem is and how to solve it. If their hoses hit an electrical panel, a recorded scream lets them know they just died. But if they beat the fire down, they’re rewarded with a congratulatory snippet from “Disco Inferno.” Hey, these guys have to be ready for anything—even a dance party.