Canyon Dwellers Living on the Edge of Change

Times Staff Writer

Things start to look different after you pass the road to the dump.

Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks circle brush-covered hills and meadows littered with red boulders. The orange glow from city streetlights fades as an unlit two-lane highway winds east toward Silverado and Modjeska canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Some houses teeter on hillsides, others are hidden behind sprawling oak trees. Many who live here still heat their homes with wood-burning stoves and draw water from wells.

Residents of these rural Orange County enclaves have fought to keep tract homes and sidewalks out of the canyons. But after losing a drawn-out battle against a developer that plans to build nearly 4,000 homes on the hills and grasslands, some say many of the things that set the canyon way of life apart are being lost.

“We’re being sucked into that 4,000 homes, and it absolutely isn’t who we are,” said Connie Nelson, 52, who lives in Silverado Canyon. “Just the [street] lights alone will affect us. When you come out to Silverado, it’s wonderfully dark, and that’s being lost.”


Theirs is a familiar story in Southern California as the region’s last open spaces are developed. People flee the city and find peace in the rural rough edges. Yet they inevitably waken one day and find the trappings of urban life on their doorstep, or at least down the street.

Silverado was founded in 1878 during a short-lived silver mining boom, Modjeska a decade later, after Shakespearean actress Helena Modjeska built a home there. Silverado and Modjeska have persisted ever since as rustic retreats amid the encroaching subdivisions and shopping malls.

On the edge of Cleveland National Forest, where fires, floods and mudslides threaten, the canyon communities learned to take care of themselves.

The area’s two volunteer fire companies are staffed by residents who train every week, knowing they would be the first to respond to canyon emergencies.

More than firefighting outposts, the stations double as community centers and play host to holiday breakfasts and fundraisers. Modjeska residents regard the station’s unofficial chief, Bruce Newell, as the town mayor.

And then there’s the Santiago County Water District, which doubles as a public works agency, administering county grants to pave dirt roads whenever it puts in water lines.

On other occasions, the district has stepped in to help individual residents. When Harding Creek near Modjeska Canyon swelled during last winter’s heavy rains, washing away large chunks of Laurie Martz’s backyard, the district sponsored emergency financial aid grants. As its workers fortified a nearby bridge with a water line in it, they restored Martz’s backyard as well.

“We’ve got quite a legacy of helping neighbors,” said Bob Hunt, a district board member. “If it weren’t for the district, a lot of this simply wouldn’t get done.”

Water district staffers not only know every canyon resident’s name -- there are about 2,500 of them -- they remember their pets’ names, especially the ones that bite.

Customers can walk into the water district office and shout questions across the counter to general manager John T. Reddick.

“These people aren’t faceless numbers to us,” he said. “They’re friends and neighbors.”

Canyon denizens are used to seeing urban fingers reach in to meddle every so often. But they’ve always managed to fend them off.

When developers show up, residents pack community meeting rooms. Ponytailed men in cowboy boots stand alongside well-heeled professionals, each asking the outsiders pointed questions. Some bring pet geese and invite in wandering dogs in order to make the point that the canyons are a far cry from suburbia.

Silverado’s one-room county library branch is a favorite target for closure. County supervisors periodically threaten to slash its hours or get rid of it altogether. During emergencies, the library often becomes an impromptu gathering place.

Shortly after boulders crashed into Silverado’s Shadybrook Country Store in February, killing Caitlin Oto, children who had gathered for story night instead talked about what had happened to the 16-year-old and their favorite candy store.

A few years back, the county tried to dismantle the volunteer fire companies as well, saying they had no place in an urbanized county. While most of the county’s other volunteer departments were eliminated or turned into medical-aid teams, both canyon companies managed to hang on.

But when it came to the 4,000-home Irvine Co. development in the foothills, there was little canyon residents could do. They lined up by the hundreds alongside environmentalists to protest the development at three Orange City Council meetings.

The council approved the project anyway. The Sierra Club last week sued to block the development, saying the City Council understated the negative environmental effects the project would cause.

About the same time the project was approved, residents learned that the water board would have to merge with a larger agency to avoid bankruptcy.

To some, the changes are too much.

Losing the water district was “like losing our freedom,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t just a little utility like Edison. It was a major pillar that kept Silverado close to autonomous.”

Nelson said there was talk among her neighbors about moving out of state to more rural country. But they can’t agree on where to go, and everyone has jobs that tie them to Orange County.

“Our friends are the velvet handcuffs that keep us here,” she said.

Outsiders, too, recognize that there’s something different about the canyons. On weekends, cyclists fly down Santiago Canyon Road. Fred Hite of Irvine parked his car just off the road and pedaled his bike into Silverado Canyon for lunch.

This road “takes you to places that just are not typical of Orange County,” Hite said. “It’s bucolic, it’s woodsy. If it were just a bunch of houses, I wouldn’t come.”

Still, others in the canyons have a more tempered view of the situation. “I think there were a lot of people that hated to see that much change, but I think it’s what you make of it,” said Newell, the Modjeska firefighter. “It’s sad to lose the independence of the [water] district, but this is not the end of life as we know it.”

Even as the sun sets on the water district, other canyon entities such as the fire stations and the local parks and recreation district will step up to fill the void, he said, celebrating their sense of the remote.

Lucille Cruz, Silverado’s 30-year veteran librarian, agreed that in some ways the canyons “will remain the same,” but “you can’t help but change when you have that big of a project at your doorstep.”