Community recalls the Station fire

It's been five years since the Station fire — started by an unidentified arsonist on Aug. 26, 2009 just a few miles north of La Cañada — ravaged the Foothills, burning through a record 161,000 acres over a 50-day period.

That event put the La Cañada community on alert and tested city and county emergency response teams as the slow-moving fire licked at the property lines of homeowners at the northern edge of town and families were evacuated.

Today, new vegetation has begun to take root in areas that suffered from the conflagration, anchoring topsoil that would otherwise erode under heavy rainfall. That's an important benchmark met for those trained to keep an eye on public safety and the threat of future disasters.

But for many, memories of the Station fire recall much more personal losses, to property and homes never fully restored, and to the notion of feeling safe and protected in a town so well known for looking after its own.

Time has also not dulled the painful memories of Los Angeles County fire crews, who lost two firefighters just four days into the fire, when Fire Captain Ted Hall and foreman Arnie Quiñones of county Station No. 129 died in a vehicle crash while fighting the blaze.

Next week, a private, local memorial service is planned for colleagues and loved ones to honor Quinones and Hall's sacrifice, according to Stephanie English, a community liaison with the department.

"Our hearts were heavy," English said, recalling learning of the deaths. "People were in a totally different place and mood, and now this was a whole [different] crisis."

As firefighters prepare to pay tribute to lives lost, civic leaders and residents personally affected by the fire and the consequent mudslides that destroyed several La Cañada homes recently shared their recollections from the disaster.

"That was quite a time," recalled La Cañada's director of administrative services, Kevin Chun, who was acting city manager while Mark Alexander was on vacation in August 2009. "It was the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history and it started right in our backyard."

What began as a 20- or 30-acres blaze spread to 5,000 acres in a matter of days. At City Hall, Chun said, the focus was on keeping the public informed with accurate, up-to-date information in what soon turned into a rumor-filled media blitz.

"We knew from the very beginning it was going to be important to us to play the role of putting out good information people could rely on," he said.

An incident command center was created as an ad hoc headquarters for responding agencies and officials to come together, assess the progress of events and share information with each other. At any hour of the day, a skeleton crew of four to eight city staff members were on hand to man phone calls and monitor the situation, Chun said.

Then-mayor Laura Olhasso recalled first hearing the news that La Cañada Flintridge was epicenter of a wildfire upon returning home from a business trip. She called City Hall and was told the fire was spreading slowly and was not near homes. By the next day, the blaze had grown much larger, and so had the fire team response.

"What I remember most is how many different fire companies we had spread throughout the northern perimeter of the city," Olhasso said, putting the number at 132. "When they talk about response…it was amazing."

She spent at least one night at City Hall, and worked with local agencies to determine what and where any further disaster might occur in the wake of the fire. K-rails were installed on Ocean View Boulevard as a mudslide abatement measure.

Rick Frazier, a 20-year Ocean View Boulevard resident, got a call from wife Starr there was fire on the hillside. Before he even made it home from work, he saw tell-tale gray clouds.

"I remember seeing the plumes of smoke going up. That was pretty scary," Frazier said. "Of course, by the next morning, the thing was just blazing out of control."

By the following week, the Fraziers had sprayed their house with fire-repellent gel, packed up their pets and evacuated to a hotel in Burbank. Rick Frazier gave his home one last look as they drove away.

"I was looking at my house and everything we'd ever done, and I just thought, 'This is all going to go away, and there won't be anything left when I get back,'" he said.

Gary Stibal, a homeowner on Normanton Drive since 1973, said the fire came within 50 yards of his house at one point, completely burning a nearby hillside.

He and wife Diane were evacuated twice because of the fire, and then again in November when hard rains falling on fire-scorched earth caused several mudslides that damaged his home.

"We knew that hill was going to burn sometime, because it hadn't burned since the '30s," he said. "Mother Nature will eventually catch up to you, and it did."

English encouraged La Cañadans to look back on the Station fire as a reminder of the importance of vigilance in the face of future disasters.

"La Cañada is such a serene, peaceful, safe and beautiful community that people feel serene and safe and protected," she said. "But anything can happen anywhere, so we're always encouraging people to prepare ahead of time.

"As we always say, 'It's not if but when,'" she added.

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