ForestDwellers Ignore Order to Evacuate

TheLos Angeles Times-October 01, 2004 

AngelesForest park managers had told occupants of 120 cabins to leave their homesbecause of fire danger.

By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer

October 1, 2004

Some cabin dwellers in the Angeles National Forest aredefying an order from park managers to evacuate immediately because of extremefire danger, creating a tense standoff as the wildfire season approaches.

Although the vast forest is mostly open space andcampgrounds, it is also home to 500 cabins, many of them owned by residents whohave lived there for years.

Under the evacuation order, people in 120 of the cabins hadto clear out by last Sunday because officials said the risk of a wildfire was sogreat that they doubted they could safely rescue the residents in case of amajor blaze.

It’s the first time that forest officials have issued such asweeping evacuation order — a sign, they say, of an unprecedented fire dangerwhen Santa Ana winds arrive in October.

But residents like Larry Bartlett are refusing to go.

Bartlett has lived for 24 years in a tiny 1920s-era log cabinin North Trail Canyon, about 10 minutes from Sunland. His is one of eightdwellings set amid a small creek and a yellowing hillside. Bartlett and theother residents were drawn by the isolation and nature — even though they arejust a few miles from the city.

They fear that if they leave, and a fire starts, firefighterswill do little to save their homes. They argue that they would help the forestby staying where they are, keeping an eye out for smoke and flames.

“My real life is up here. None of us are going togo,” said Bartlett, who lives in the cabin with his wife and teenagedaughter. “I understand there’s high fire danger, but residents have neverbeen the cause of a fire.”

Bartlett, a 51-year-old painter who works at USC, bought thecabin for $12,000 and has a lease with the national forest for the landunderneath it. He’s been busily preparing for fire season by clearing a 120-footperimeter around his property and by placing two fire extinguishers at all fourcorners of the cabin. He climbs his roof daily to sweep away dried vegetationthat could easily fuel a fire.

Helen Bilbruck, a neighbor about a mile away, has lived inher granite and redwood cabin for 41 years and says she would have to sleep inher truck if she evacuated. She worries that looters would come if they learnedher cabin had been abandoned.

“People who live here protect the forest,” saidBilbruck, 73. “These are our homes. I’m not leaving unless they drag meout.”

Of the 120 cabins affected by the order, at least 100 havebeen evacuated, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Officials said they werestepping up patrols around the mountain hamlets, but have not decided if or whenthey would forcibly remove the holdouts. Residents could face fines of up to$5,000 and up to six months in jail.

“We’re trying to educate the residents about the danger,but ultimately they are subject to citations,” said Sherry Rollman, anAngeles National Forest spokeswoman.

Forest officials said they had no choice but to clear outcabins in extreme-danger areas. The brush is the driest they have ever seen, andofficials fear a fast-moving fire could sweep through the communities before theresidents could get out.

“The situation on the ground today has never been seenor reported in history,” said forest Supervisor Jody Noiron at a tensemeeting Wednesday with cabin owners. “This is the last resort for us.”

Southern California saw the worst brush fire season in itshistory last year, when 780,000 acres were burned, 3,600 homes destroyed and 26people killed. The greatest damage was largely confined to San Bernardino andSan Diego counties.

Last fall, 182,000 acres were scorched in the ClevelandNational Forest and 150,000 acres were burned in the San Bernardino NationalForest.

Both the Cleveland and San Bernardino forests currently havefire restrictions and partial closures, but they have remained open toresidents.

A Cleveland forest official did not know how many peoplelived there, but said it contained 300 cabins. San Bernardino forest, with thecommunities of Lake Arrowhead and Idlewild, is home to roughly 70,000 residents.

Though only 10,000 acres were burned in the Angeles forestlast fall, conditions now are said to be the worst. By the end of July lastyear, 1,373 acres had burned in the forest. By the end of July this year, 17,091acres had burned.

“We got some summer thundershowers in August andSeptember that the Angeles forest didn’t,” said Ruth Wenstrom, a SanBernardino National Forest spokeswoman. “Our moisture situation is lookinga lot better than theirs.”

About 15 inhabitants of Millard Canyon, north of Altadena,have agreed to leave their longtime residences behind until substantial rainfallquenches the region.

“I feel bad our neighbors are being displaced,”said Alice Sarkisian Wessen, an Altadena resident who has volunteered totemporarily store Millard Canyon residents’ belongings, such as plants andbikes, during the evacuation. “They’re our eyes and ears in theforest.”

About 70 cabin owners near the Chantry Flats area have alsobeen restricted from entering the forest. Many have pleaded with the ForestService for brief access to their homes to collect valuables.

As of Thursday, Kim Kelley, owner of the historic Adam’s PackStation in Chantry Flats — which opened in the 1930s and supplies hikers,mountain bikers and surrounding cabin lodgers with everything from ice cream tolumber — had yet to leave her forest home.

“I’d have to leave all that inventory behind,”Kelley said. “They’re taking my business away from me and depriving me ofmy livelihood.”

Back at North Trail Canyon, residents are planning to stayput as long as they can.

“If there’s any time of the year we’re going to be here,it’s fire season, so we can occupy and protect our property,” said MikeMalan, a plumber who works at USC with Bartlett.

The former U.S. Marine and Los Angeles County firefighter’s1,000-square-foot cabin is outfitted with a sprinkler system set to go off at165 degrees. The cabin is also surrounded by succulents such as pointy centuryplants.

But Malan said his neighbors are his main defense againstfire. Together, the residents have built roads, clapboard bridges and stonewalls protecting drivers from careening into the creek. They have rescued hikersand fended off mountain lions and bears.

“We can depend on each other during a fire,” Malansaid. 

Copyright © 2004, TheLos Angeles Times


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