An Uncertain Future Awaits an Enduring Piney Enclave

Times Staff Writer

For eight decades, the 10-cabin settlement known as Middle Fork had survived every calamity the San Bernardino National Forest could muster -- flame, flood and falling rock. Its luck ran out two Saturdays ago.

Little more than hearths and chimneys are all that's left of nine of the cabins, which burned as quickly as wood chips in one of California's wildfires. They mark the blackened earth like tombstones.

Now, as Middle Fork residents rake through the rubble, the mountains around them still smoking, they fear their tiny redoubt along Lytle Creek is dead for good, a way of life gone forever. They say the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land on which the cabins sat, had been eager to get rid of them -- and could refuse permission to rebuild.

Some also say that the Forest Service had mounted only a halfhearted effort to save the structures from the Grand Prix fire, having written them off as a low-rent nuisance not worth the risk of a determined defense.

"They didn't really try to fight the fire back here," said Martin Ruff, 34, a truck driver whose cabin was reduced to charred skeletons of appliances, plus the chimney. "They let the fire go -- because they want us out of here."

Forest Service officials say firefighters did their best, but were thwarted by Middle Fork's location on a canyon stream, its lack of a maintained road and an overgrowth of trees and scrub.

Those are not uncommon hazards for cabin dwellers in national forests -- 750 of them in the San Bernardino region, the officials said. Last year, two fires destroyed 110 cabins in the neighboring Angeles National Forest.

Gabe Garcia, head ranger for the Forest Service district that includes Middle Fork, said the fire danger there had been heightened because several cabin owners had not cleared brush, derelict cars and old propane tanks from around their residences. He said the community also failed to keep up the road that crosses the creek bed.

Garcia noted that insurance companies had declined to write fire policies for the cabins. "That's a really strong message," he said.

A review of whether the cabins should be rebuilt will take several months and will focus on the threat posed to firefighters, he said. "How many engines can you get across that creek?" Garcia said. "More importantly, how many can you get safely back out?"

Middle Fork is nestled in a grove of alders and pines about 20 miles northwest of San Bernardino, just beyond the cottage-and-shack village of Scotland. The cabins are clustered on a bouldered branch of Lytle Creek. They date to the 1920s and have weathered major floods and road-closing rockslides.

Some have sold recently for as little as $30,000. Their owners lease the land from the Forest Service for less than $300 annually, usually for 20-year terms. The government requires that the cabins be used as vacation homes, not full-time residences, but many owners occupy them year-round. Cabins are often passed down through generations.

"My dad built ours," said Joyce Holloway McKelvy, 77, a retired Long Beach schoolteacher who was removing "mementos" -- scorched pots and pans -- from the leveled cabin. "I've been coming up here my whole life.... I just feel sick inside, empty."

McKelvy said she wants rebuild the cabin, but isn't sure the Forest Service will let her. Her eyes moistened as she took in the nine fire-blasted foundations, and the trees curled like spent matchsticks.

"It was so beautiful here," she said.

Mark Rahhal, 44, has lived at Middle Folk for 21 years. He said he had kept his cedar-sided cabin in good condition and regularly trimmed back the blackberry bushes for fire protection.

"I should have stayed to fight the fire," he said, standing beside his flattened property, the hulk of a Franklin stove the largest fixture left. He proudly showed snapshots of the cabin. "This is what it used to look like."

Rahhal, a cellular equipment installer, was gathering phone numbers from neighbors who had returned to Middle Fork over the weekend to search for anything salvageable -- a few wrenches, a picture frame.

He plans to organize a meeting between the residents and Garcia.

"We should be allowed to rebuild," Rahhal said. "It's not an upscale community, but it's a community."

Tiffany White, 29, said much the same. Her family's cabin, where her mother lives, was the lone survivor. The fire had scarred the ground nearly to the front door and singed the branches hanging over the roof.

"I'm amazed the house wasn't touched, but I'm devastated by this," said White, waving at the ruins around her. The medical assistant had lived in the cabin for 18 months with her daughter and son, until last August.

Her mother, Cheryl Hill, was not home when the fire hit, and has been staying with relatives while waiting for electricity to be restored to the cabin.

"She wants to come back," White said. "These aren't $300,000 houses, but they're people's houses."

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