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The Long Road Back : ’93 Fire Victim Battles Burns, Memories, But Keeps Hope Alive

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The charcoal skeletons of manzanita shrubs stand as eerie reminders of the clear blue autumn morning two years ago today, when, without warning, the hillside above Ron Mass’ home erupted in flames.

Over time, generous rains have nurtured explosions of greenery, helping to heal the scorched earth around Deer Creek Ranch, where the Malibu fire began. But for the 42-year-old Mass, who still lives in the same place, memories linger that even the rain can’t wash away.

From his front porch, he can see the swimming pool into which his roommate, Duncan Gibbins, dived in a doomed attempt to save himself from the blaze. The pool is just off the driveway, where Mass gunned his Jeep through walls of flames, suffering severe burns in a desperate dash toward the safety of Old Topanga Canyon Road.

Mass, who still drives that driveway every day, says he doesn’t want to live in the past. But lingering medical problems, he says, have made it impossible for him to move on with his life.

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“I haven’t given much thought to what’s happening in the future,” he said. “I’m just living one day at a time.”

For each step forward, there are seemingly two steps back, says Mass, who received third-degree burns over 75% of his body. He was supposed to have more reconstructive surgery recently, he said, but that has been delayed because of a recurring infection.

“I think I’m healed and then something else comes up,” he said. “And I realize I have a long way to go.”

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But he hasn’t given up hope, he says. For one thing, his appearance has noticeably improved; the brown-and-white patchwork of scars on his face is fainter now, thanks to countless operations and the skill of reconstructive surgeons. And, Mass says, plans are in the works for a new nose and ears.

“Sometimes I don’t see it, because I see it every day,” he said. “But when people who don’t see me a lot tell me I look better, I feel good.”

The fire, one of the worst in Southern California history, raged out of control for more than 24 hours, destroying more than 300 homes and killing three people. Officials suspect arson, but no one has ever been charged.

Mass, a carpenter, returned home that morning for a forgotten tool and smelled smoke. He alerted Gibbins, a filmmaker, who was at work inside one of the houses on the ranch. Together, they tried to beat back the fire with garden hoses but it was no use. Within minutes, the ranch was surrounded by flames and the two had to flee.

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Mass led the way in his Jeep, while Gibbins followed in his Miata, Mass recalled. Walls of flames blocked their path along the way, and at some point, Mass said, Gibbins jumped out of his car and ran back to the pool.

Mass, with just one more wall of flame remaining between him and safety, plunged on.

But the Jeep stalled suddenly and its tires exploded from the intense heat, forcing Mass to abandon the vehicle and run through the flames the last few hundred feet to the road, where rescuers found him.

“Statistically speaking, he should have been dead,” said Dr. Clinton Tempereau, chief of psychiatry at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, where Mass spent five months and 12 days.

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After Mass was well enough, Tempereau began counseling him to help him deal with the trauma. He urged Mass to talk about the incident, to relive it, again and again.

“Every day, he would come in, and I would tell him the story,” said Mass. “I would keep telling him the story until I could tell the whole thing without crying.”

Those who knew Mass before the fire say the experience has changed him. Mass, an intense man with strong opinions, has mellowed, they say. Estranged from his family before the fire, Mass reunited with them afterward.

“I think he’s become a much more sensitive person,” said his sister, Patricia Anderson, who lives near Tujunga. “He’s become much more caring.”

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Most encouraging of all, say friends, the intensity has returned to Mass’ dark eyes.

Peter Alexander, who owns the property where Mass lives, says Mass is an inspiration to many people.

“There is an underlying depth and quiet in his being, and that affects people,” Alexander said. “It’s a Zen-like quality: He has this situation that has been created, and he deals with it.”

Mass, who no longer can do the heavy physical labor of carpentry, works part time, supervising construction and maintenance projects at the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon.

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He lives on a $600-a-month disability check and on an emergency fund set up for him after the fire. His insurance covers his medical expenses, which Mass figures have topped $2 million. But it does not cover post-operative therapy, so funds are running short, and Mass has put out an appeal for help.

Mass says he is trying not to be bitter. He is grateful, he says, for all the donations people have made.

And he is glad, he says, that the Los Angeles County Fire Department has changed many of its firefighting strategies to improve response times since the Malibu fire. Mass said that on that morning, the department sent only a scout truck to investigate the first telephoned report of the blaze. Now, Mass says, firefighting units are sent to make checks, just in case.

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If there is a moral to his story, he says, it is that brush fires should never be taken lightly. He never realized, he said, that the fire would travel as fast as it did, and that he would become trapped.

“I didn’t think anything could happen to me,” he said.


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