Fire Alters Arrowhead in Ways Big and Small

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the Lake Arrowhead of alpine villas, ski boats and postcard vistas seems to have escaped the ravages of the recent wildfires.

But travel past the numerous roadblocks and the torched landscapes along the highways twisting "up the hill," as residents say, and it becomes clear that the mountain community did not survive the blaze unscathed.

"Nothing is normal. Even if it looks normal. It's very unsettling," said Sherry Schulz as she and husband Randy, 48, packed groceries into their car in front of the Stater Brothers supermarket in Lake Arrowhead Village.

People who live or work on the mountain are required to wear red wristbands, to prove they belong and to allow passage through some roadblocks.

Most of the shops in the village, from the pharmacy to the video store, remain dark. The supermarket was one of the few places doing a brisk business, as people restocked refrigerators. Some people measured the rhythms of life in unusual ways.

"You know you've got problems when you can't even find a McDonald's" open, said Randy May, a team manager for State Farm Insurance, which set up a claims command post in the parking lot of the Lake Arrowhead Resort.

The lakeside homes and business were untouched by the fires, hotel workers said, but they're gearing for an economic slump.

At the Lake Arrowhead Resort, hundreds of tourists have been replaced by utility workers, firefighters and tree cutters. Normally, the hotel would be full this time of year; now it's 60% occupied only because of the enormous post-fire work.

"It's going to be a slow winter," said bellman Adam Mabile, 34.

Most of the residents in the Lake Arrowhead area did not lose their homes. Their journey to normalcy will be markedly different from the residents of Cedar Glen, which is around the bend and largely out of sight from the rest of the mountain residents. There, the fire catapulted over the Rim of the World Highway and left a charred wasteland of more than 350 destroyed homes that were once nestled on hillsides and along tiny creeks.

On top of a ridge, Kolleen O'Bannon, 47, stood red-eyed at the remains of a multilevel home her parents built almost 40 years ago.

"It was a gorgeous house. My dad built it, and when he passed, he left it to us," O'Bannon said.

Two small statues depicting fawns remained largely undamaged, except for a tar-like slick running down their backs.

Only one home atop her wooded neighborhood survived the flames.

O'Bannon's husband, Gary Henderson, 58, a retired Los Angeles Police Department employee, said he couldn't help feeling bad for the owner of the remaining home, however.

"I feel sorry for her. Would you want to live here?" he asked. "This is the moon. Look behind you -- look at the devastation."

Lake Arrowhead area schools remain closed until Nov. 17, forcing working parents to find care for their young children. Parents such as Angela Rust had to scramble to make sure their children were not left home alone.

"My God, the mess in my house when I'm not around," said Rust, an administrative assistant for a home health-care company in Rimforest. She said she's going to trust her 18- and 15-year-old sons to look after her 7-year-old because she can't find day care.

"I'm a little worried. All the boys fight," Rust said.

Outside the Lake Arrowhead Resort, work crews felling trees in Cedar Glen talked about how their job had become more menacing after the wildfire.

"These trees can break in half without you touching them," said Sergio Lopez, 20, of Big Bear. "Now, they're really burnt and brittle to the core."

Before, the tree cutters could climb up hundreds of feet and, using a rope, cut the tree in two pieces, making the job of removing the dying timber more manageable and safe.

"There's no way of getting up those trees right now," Lopez said, adding that the cutting takes place from the ground.

At Mountains Community Hospital, the patient load was down about 30%, said Susan Lowell, director of patient care services. About 60% of the employees had not returned to work after the evacuations. The hospital has lost as much as $250,000 since the evacuations, she said.

At Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church near Skyforest, Father Timothy Keppel was preparing for his first services, scheduled for today, in more than a week. The church is just starting to take stock of the number of parishioners who lost their homes, many in Cedar Glen, Keppel said.

"Our effort right now is to locate members of our church who have been displaced and relocate them," the priest said. "We've sent letters to parishioners who live down the hill, asking them to open up vacation homes they have up here to people for three to four months without charging."

Inside the church, beneath the peaked cathedral ceiling, a lone parishioner prayed on a recent afternoon.

"The firefighters -- God bless their souls, they should get gold medals," said 72-year-old Maria Radleigh, an Italian immigrant who has lived in the mountains for more than three decades.

But no one could save a huge swath of Cedar Glen.

In the largely working-class community, gutted cars dot the landscape. In a community that began haphazardly as small hunting lots about a century ago, homes were densely clumped under tall, dead canopies.

Some homes and cabins were built on top of septic tanks. Water pressure was so low, resident Sandy Jones said jokingly, that "if a neighbor is taking a shower and I'm taking a shower at the same time, one of us going to get dry real quick."

"This place was built before codes," said Jones, 44, who lost two homes in Cedar Glen. "Some of these cabins, you can look into them without opening the door. Just stand at an angle."

In fact, some Cedar Glen residents said they wonder whether the community will be the same when it's rebuilt -- and whether it should be. Many of the homes could not be built today because the were too small and too close to the narrow roads. There are no fire hydrants.

Barbera McCusker, 23, said the site of the 400-square-foot home she rented out to tenants, now destroyed, may have to be consolidated with an adjoining neighbor's lot just to be up to code.

"Chances are she's going to want to buy my land or I'm going to have to buy her land," McCusker said. "Lots of people say they want to rebuild here, but once they see this, they might think differently."

Standing with four daughters outside their home of 26 years, Shannon Henyan, 58, said there was no doubt she would rebuild. A statue of St. Francis was among the few possessions that survived the fire that gutted her 13-bedroom manor, which had at various times in its century-long history been a country club, a square dance hall, a bordello and a Christian retreat house.

"I was going to rent out rooms -- that was going to be my retirement," Henyan said. "This is a working-class community. We're not rich people here."

For Sandy Jones, a landscaper in Lake Arrowhead who lost two homes, the week has been one of overwhelming loss. But he was not without hope.

His 7-year-old son, Jake, found his boogie board near the wrecked home.

"How did it survive down there, that's Hell's Kitchen!" Jones yelled.

"I was going to send my family downhill and sleep in my truck if I had to, cause it's the only job I've got," Jones said.

Then he got a phone call from his boss telling him he had found him a place near his job where his family could stay for at least a few days, sending father and son into an impromptu dance next to the remains of their home.

"We're pretty resilient," Jones said, hugging his son. "We'll be all right."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World