High on Hills : Despite Hazards of Fire, Rain and Mudslides, Homeowners Are Sold on Privacy, Rural Feel of Hillside Living

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tice is a free-lance writer who lives in the flatlands of Culver City.

When the fireball raced down the hill behind Sandy and Doug Schultz's Glendale home, Schultz was on the roof in wet jeans with a hose in his hand. It was the afternoon of June 27, 1990, and a brush fire that had been consuming the hills around Glendale College was headed straight for him.

"I wasn't even frightened--there wasn't time," he recalled. "It was like being in a tornado. Yucca plants were exploding, ash was falling and it was about 113 degrees out."

In a rush of wind, the fire roared past, narrowly missing the house. Schultz noticed the wood shingles beneath his steel roof tiles had ignited. He rushed inside the house, where smoke was wafting out of the ceiling fixtures and air vents. Grabbing a tin box of important papers, he raced outside, crossing the street just in time to turn and see the house explode into flame.

Dazed, he discovered he still had his cellular car phone in his back pocket. He called Sandy, who was fighting rush hour traffic from San Pedro, to tell her not to hurry. "She was screaming," he said, "and I told her not to get in an accident."

Sifting through the debris a few days later with the help of friends, the Schultzes managed to recover a few keepsakes: scorched wedding pictures, a fire-tanned ceramic bulldog salt shaker that had belonged to Sandy Schultz's mother. "I had all my family heirlooms because all my family had died," she said sadly. "The fire was like losing them all at once all over again."

More than 40 homes in the area were destroyed. After losing nearly everything but their cars and the clothes on their backs, you might think the Schultzes would have moved away to somewhere safer, flatter--outside of a brush fire area, at least.

You'd be wrong.

You see, the Schultzes love living in the hills. "When you come out here, it's like you're in the country," Sandy Shultz, an Oregon native, said.

So the Schultzes built their dream house on their charred lot, going from 2,500 to 3,700 square feet and adding every modern convenience. They moved into their new home, which features cement roof tiles and no exposed wood, in late October, 1992.

"I prefer to live up here because there's a certain peace and tranquillity up in the hills," Doug Schultz said. "We're going to be here a while."

Despite the hazards of living in L.A.'s mountainous areas, there's a special breed of Angeleno who just wouldn't live anywhere else. There are frequent reminders of hillside perils--most recently, February's heavy rains and the resulting mudslides--but these lovers of natural scenery simply fortify their homes, hope for the best and rebuild when necessary.

Jason Saleeby, a Caltech professor of geology, ticked off a list of potential problems awaiting mountain home buyers. In the San Gabriel Mountains, Saleeby explained, "the bedrock is highly fractured and weathered--it's decomposing before your eyes. There's a major thrust fault beneath the range, and a 6.0 magnitude earthquake is not unlikely. There are brush fire hazards when the Santa Ana winds blow. You can get a lot of damage in the canyons just from high winds, too. There's always potential for floods and related debris flows during large winter storms."

So where does Saleeby live? At the very top of a hill in Sierra Madre.

"I really like this area," he said. "And I have a contingency plan of how to rebuild my house if anything happens. I'd rather live with the risks up here than with the smog down in Pasadena."

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Sylvia Gross, the 79-year-old owner of a tiny four-room Tujunga home, agrees. "I never did like living in the city," she said. Her house is hidden at the end of a winding dirt road, with deep canyons on two sides and a steep hillside in back. The $21,500 home she and her late husband, Calvin, bought in 1973 has narrowly escaped both fire and mudslide.

The fire came in 1975, roaring out of La Crescenta a few days before Thanksgiving. Calvin Gross was driving his wife back from the hospital--Sylvia had just had surgery on her left arm--when they spotted ominous black clouds over their canyon.

When they got home, Calvin descended into the canyon while Sylvia hosed down the roof with her good arm. "It was like being in the jaws of hell," Gross recalled. "White ash was falling like a snowstorm. We were surrounded by fire on two ridges. But I never was one to run away from trouble."

Despite pleas from fire officials to evacuate, the Grosses stayed. The fire moved off, and their house was spared.

The next time, it would take 100 Mennonites to save them. In March and April, 1978, the area was hit with heavy rains. "I saw a slide come down and cover three cars in a flash, " Gross recalled. As the hillside behind their house became saturated, a 15-foot-thick slab of earth began to slide--right toward the back door.

The mud was making its way onto the Grosses' new carpet when two Mennonite church elders appeared at their door. Soon dozens of Mennonite teen-agers bearing shovels were streaming up the canyon. Organized into work crews under the elders' supervision, the church group worked around the clock, steadily diverting the mud away from the house. "If it hadn't been for them, I don't know what would have happened to us," Gross said. "We would have filled up the house with mud."

Undeterred, Sylvia Gross has lived alone in her mountain hideaway since her husband died in 1983. "I am so glad to be living here and not crammed on top of people," she said. In the recent deluge, Gross reported, "We didn't even have a bucketful of slide--we were so lucky. Even the Tujunga Wash didn't misbehave. And now I have two running streams, and the sound is lovely."

Gross now spends much of her time fighting to keep the canyons uncrowded, opposing development in the hills around her home with the help of the law degree she received in 1972. Though she's learned from experience the hazards of mountain living, she recalled with a laugh, "We didn't know anything about this when we moved here."

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More recent purchasers of hill property can't plead ignorance. "Buyers are extremely sophisticated now," said realtor Judy Webb-Martin of Webb-Martin Realtors, who has been selling property in mountainous Sierra Madre for 16 years. With the coming of full disclosure laws, Webb-Martin added, "We insist they get a physical inspection and a geological inspection, which can be very expensive, but it's essential." She finds the risks that such inspections uncover don't discourage enthusiastic hill lovers. "If you want the canyon, you want the canyon and that's it," she said.

Webb-Martin herself lives two blocks down from the last street in Sierra Madre. "I have a view, and I don't feel there's anything negative about living in the mountains," she said. If debris destroyed her house, she added, "I'd probably rebuild and move the boulders over."

Rebuilding was Kit Paull's choice as well, when the carport and deck of her Kagel Canyon home above Lakeview Terrace were condemned after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Luckily, the cars were moved out of the carport before it fell over backward.

"We cleaned stuff that came out of cabinets for a week," she said. "It was a camping kind of situation, but we felt fortunate."

Paull's 1924 two-story clapboard house, which was purchased for $30,000 in 1970, sustained some cracks but was still sound after the earthquake. Paull, who teaches high school in Sylmar, still loves the rural feel of her neighborhood.

"I like being able to take a walk and go straight into the mountains," she said. "I love the feeling of nature and seclusion and peace that we usually have. I just feel very individual and free here."

A fire in the fall of 1975 left Paull a bit more nervous. Her son Chris was away visiting her ex-husband, Bob, when a bullhorn awakened her at 5 a.m. She and daughter Julia, who was then 10, joined the exodus of people, cars, pets and livestock moving down the roads.

"The fire had been traveling in the San Gabriel Mountains for days, and at this point we were starting to see flames," Paull said. "I woke my daughter up and grabbed pictures and what I thought were important papers, and took a handful of clothes out of the closet. One neighbor put wet blankets on the roof, but the fire just sucked them right off."

Unable to think of anything else to do, the bedraggled pair ate breakfast at a coffee shop. Then Paull took her daughter with her to class. "We looked horrible," she recalled, laughing. She was in the cafeteria when she heard the fire had passed through her canyon, leaving her house still standing.

After the fire, residents prepared for mudslides. "County flood control said there were some great big boulders that could come bash into the house, but that hasn't happened--yet," she said.

Mudslides have threatened George and Corky Coulter's Altadena home several times over the years since 1962, when they paid $34,500 for a house close by the Angeles National Forest. In spring 1978, more than 15 tons of mud descended into their back yard after a series of heavy rains.

"We could see the underside of our neighbor's pool on the lot above us," said Corky Coulter. They kept the mud, redesigning the back yard to accommodate it. Miraculously, the pool stayed put.

So did the Coulters, who raised three sons on the property. "This was a wonderful spot to raise children, with the national forest as your back yard," Corky Coulter said. "We get raccoons, possums, and two years ago the deer came. It is a high-maintenance life, though, including intensive brush-clearing to reduce fire danger."

Despite their efforts, the Coulters had a close call with a forest fire that burned 5,300 acres just east of their house in 1979. "We had everything packed in the car," said George Coulter. "I decided all you save is people and records of people."

By special agreement with the Forest Service, the Coulters have even cleared brush 150 feet into the public park next door to their lot, and replanted it with evergreens.

With their sons grown, the Coulters recently thought about moving away. They looked for eight months before deciding they couldn't leave the countryside they loved. Instead, they remodeled their house, adding concrete roof tiles and more space for the papers George had accumulated for his hobby, genealogy. "From the time I could walk, I wanted to live tucked into a mountainside," he said.

They didn't regret their decision, even when another brush fire burned the hills west of their home at the end of last summer, coming within a few hundred yards of the property.

"There's hazards everywhere," said George Coulter. "I'd rather live here than in cyclone country. You do take some prudent steps to reduce the danger, but I think we can live with the fire danger here very well."

In Malibu, Walt and Lucille Keller have lived with the fire danger since 1960--and paid the price. Their $36,000 house near Encinal Canyon burned in October, 1978, in the Agoura-Malibu fire. More than 38,000 acres were consumed and 80 homes lost from Agoura west to the ocean.

Walt Keller raced home from his job at Northrop in Hawthorne, but the canyon was already closed. Keller tracked down his wife at the house of a Malibu City Council member, where she had fled with a carful of their belongings.

"Later that evening we were allowed through," he said, "and there was nothing left. It literally burned to ashes."

Although a neighbor offered to buy their lot, Keller said, "We were pretty intent on building over. It's a beautiful place. We have an ocean view on the hillside." Keller uses his rebuilding expertise in his current job as mayor of Malibu, helping homeowners cut through red tape. "If you burn down," he said, "we try to make it easy for you to rebuild."

Despite the potential for disaster, Keller said, "It's as close as you can get to rural in Los Angeles County. It's a unique community and the people really come through and help out--they know it may be their turn next time."

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Keller can recall dodging boulders on Pacific Coast Highway back before they began closing the road. "It used to be they'd let you weave around the boulders," he said. "A guy would come out and dynamite the boulder while you watched."

Keller took early retirement to be closer to home, "It's a tedious commute, and when the fire comes you can't get back up," he said. "I always worry about the earthquakes. People are inclined to envy people who live out here, but there is a price to pay."

If fire threatens his house again, Keller is hoping to be there to fight it. "If you can stay with the house, you can save it" he asserted.

Topanga Canyon resident Saimi Moss also believes in battling the fire. In November, 1977, she and her late husband, Marshall, lost their rustic home at the top of the canyon in a blaze.

"We probably could have saved it," she said, "but we were too frightened and the wind was blowing 60 miles an hour. And we didn't stay."

Among the items lost were prized paintings and a collection of rare books.

The Mosses replaced the "well-built but ugly" $23,000 home they bought in 1961 with a spacious, two-story model with all the requisite fire-resistant features. "From a fire protection standpoint, we overbuilt the house," she said.

The Moss property is subject to other hazards as well. "It's a dangerous site," Moss admitted. "There's an earthquake fault right near our property. And the creeks become rivers. After one terrible rain the lower canyon was closed for two or three months."

To Moss, a hill-dwelling lifestyle is a good choice. "You can accept the noise and the crowding in the city," she said. "Or you live with another tension, and that's nature, with all of its violent aspects. But you accept these things for the compensation of waking up in the morning and having breezes instead of traffic noises. The rest of the time it's so beautiful.

"We're a little bit daft, but anywhere in California is a precarious area, really," added Moss. "I think people who live in the canyons are very special people. There's a pioneering spirit."

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