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Mountain Areas Are Left Hanging

Times Staff Writer

Kim Kelley is about to go broke because mudslides have come between her and her business, not to mention her mule, nine donkeys, two horses, 11 cats and three dogs.

The slides have stranded U.S. Forest Service firetrucks, five cars and tons of heavy construction equipment that were at Chantry Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains when two major mudslides took out Big Santa Anita Canyon Road, north of Arcadia.

More than a month after the last slide, access remains limited to those willing to walk or ride mountain bikes over slide areas, and the best guess is that it will take a year to repair. Even with paths shoveled out, the route still is precarious, and could become more so with rain expected this weekend.

To further complicate matters, three foothill cities have jurisdiction over the road -- Arcadia, Monrovia and Sierra Madre -- in addition to Los Angeles County. That combination of bureaucracies doesn’t bode well for the road or the people who live and work at Chantry Flat.

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“If it rains and we lose more of the road, then we have another issue to deal with,” said Pat Malloy, Arcadia’s director of public works. “We can’t get equipment up there to clear what’s up there now. There’s too many unknowns.”

All of which makes Kelley wonder how long she can hold on -- relying on one of her sons for a place to live in Sierra Madre and eking out a living as a substitute teacher.

That wasn’t what she planned five years ago when she bought the pack mule station, which includes a small house and barn, for $160,000. The pack station, which provides supplies to cabins and a camp set deep in the forest, is thought to be the last in the United States that operates year round.

“If this goes,” Kelley said, “it’s the last piece of an era.”

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Kelley is only one of a quirky cast of characters whose lives and livelihoods are subject to the vicissitudes of nature at Chantry Flat. Their routines never were conventional. Now they’re arduous.

It’s a three-mile uphill walk to get to the flat and the 82 cabins nestled in the woods beyond it.

Sturtevant Camp, owned by the Methodist Church, now must bring its supplies to the eastern side of Mt. Wilson and cart them down the mountain to the camp. Before the slides, the camp depended on Kelley to ferry supplies by donkey from the flat.

The attendant at the Big Santa Anita Canyon Dam is marooned by an additional slide -- there are at least 18 in all -- and the Forest Service employees at Chantry have been evacuated, leaving behind five of their cars.

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To make matters worse, work on the upper slide, at the entrance to Chantry Flat, cannot begin until the lower one is repaired.

When the rains hit in January, Steve Rodgers had a dump truck, an earth mover, a trailer and some smaller equipment at Chantry Flat, where he was working on a $550,000 contract to renovate the picnic grounds.

Rodgers said he had received a prohibitive estimate of about $90,000 to airlift them out.

After pulling his truck to a halt at the first slide, Rodgers walked gingerly over the trail cut into the slide and on to the other side. Then he looked back from the solid footing of blacktop.

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“They’re just lucky there wasn’t a fire here last summer,” he said. “It would have been catastrophic.”

The temperature began to climb as he trudged up the incline. He had not been there since January and said the slides were much worse than when he had last seen them.

He blamed Arcadia for not immediately clearing the debris on its section of road, which might have prevented further undermining of the asphalt.

Even without the slides, he said, the road sections maintained by Sierra Madre and Arcadia needed major work; the entire road has been closed to all but hikers, runners, bikers and people such as Kelley since summer.

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“Even if the rains never happened, that road was not in any condition to be open to the public,” he said. “Everything is overgrown, brush hasn’t been trimmed back around blind corners, and sometimes only one lane is passable,” he said. “Arcadia and Sierra Madre are out of their league. The county should be in charge.”

Rodgers was sweaty by the time he reached a gate leading to the Santa Anita Reservoir dam. Its attendant, Darryl Forrester, and his girlfriend, Suzanne Baltzer, were waiting for Gregg Sweet, Kelley’s stable hand, who was supposed to be on his way down the mountain with a donkey so they could get supplies such as fuel and food.

Baltzer said she had spent the last three weeks in a hotel before finally crossing the slide the day before. “It gives you a real appreciation of the people who originally lived in this canyon,” she said.

As for Forrester, he was going slightly stir crazy from the isolation.

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“I’ve read all the books and seen all the videos in the house,” he said.

Sweet appeared around the bend, leading a donkey with saddlebags. Once, in the early days after the slide, he walked a donkey all the way to a Ralphs market in Arcadia; he left it tied to the single tree in the parking lot while he shopped. His truck is trapped at the pack station.

Kelley was off the mountain with her car when the slides occurred. “She’s lucky,” Sweet said. “At least she has a way to get to work.”

As Rodgers walked toward Chantry, he saw three donkeys and a horse grazing along the road. The rest were at the flat, close to their stables. Aside from the animals, the place was deserted. Rodgers then fired up his dump truck, surprised that the battery still had some juice in it. The earth mover also came to life quickly.

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Rodgers then loaded a wheelbarrow with buckets of tools -- many of them concrete trowels -- and began pushing it down the hill.

Along the way, he came upon 79-year-old Miriam Skarin of Sherman Oaks, accompanied by her dog, Dusty. She was toting a large backpack and hoping to make it to her cabin by early afternoon. Before the storms, the retired school nurse went to the cabin at least once a week. But she had not been there since the first week of January.

“We’ve missed our outings,” she said.

When Rodgers reached the last slide between him and his truck, he hoisted the buckets from the wheelbarrow and walked them across the slide.

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There were several other trucks parked by the slide. One belonged to Glenn Owens, a kind of godfather to the cabin owners, who said he thought the road could be fixed quickly if the desire was there. But he didn’t see that happening.

“We’ll just take it in stride and go on,” he said. “It’s kind of like we’re back in the ‘20s.”


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