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Scorched, but still standing

Times Staff Writer

It burned haystacks, scorched U.S. Highway 395, and even destroyed this small town’s water reservoir.

But residents of Independence, a town along the eastern side of the Sierra about a 225-mile drive north of Los Angeles, breathed a sigh of relief last week when their hometown avoided destruction.

“God was looking down on us,” said Jimi Goff, the manager of a market attached to a gas station near the center of town. “Mother Nature was [angry], but the big guy in the sky -- he took care of her.”

The fire spared most of the mile-long town and its outskirts, where just under 600 people live along 395, the roadway east of the Sierra Nevada that Southern Californians rely on to get to Mammoth and Lake Tahoe. Many of the several hundred homes -- most with trim lawns and fresh paint -- were built half a century ago.

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Like many others, Goff came here with his family for a vacation and decided to stay.

“You don’t have to lock your doors. Everyone knows everyone,” said Goff, who moved from Torrance about nine years ago. The only downside is that everyone wants to know “everybody’s business,” he said with a smile.

Many residents had to be evacuated July 7, and not everyone was lucky. Six houses and 27 outbuildings -- mostly barns or sheds -- were destroyed, with the hardest hit area near Oak Creek Campground, which was also destroyed, said Nancy Upham, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.

United Airlines pilot Don Bright, 52, lost a cabin built by the original homesteader in the 1870s. The cabin, caulked with mud, had square nails and a roof made from the remains of 5-gallon metal coffee cans. Also gone was his father’s machine shop and its priceless tools dating to the early 20th century -- metal lathes, a milling machine, harnesses, tractor parts and hay mowing equipment.

“I don’t know how we can ever begin to replace it,” he said while standing atop several inches of soft black ash.

“It looks like we suffered a nuclear war,” said Bright, who moved here from Orange County when he was 12. But he was thankful that his home was spared.

Betty Biros, 39, lost her home, which was built in the 1930s. All that remained were four chimneys surrounding a sea of ash in which the crumpled remains of a stove sat near a burnt page of a recipe book.

Before the fire, the home “was like a Garden of Eden, an oasis,” said Biros’ husband, J.D. They were in Las Vegas on vacation when they learned about the fire. “The hardest part was hearing that it was gone over the phone,” J.D. Biros said.

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Fire officials announced Friday night that they had finally contained the fire, which consumed about 35,000 acres. At times the fire was so intense it crossed over several sections of Highway 395, leaving scorch marks on the road, and it temporarily closed up to 115 miles of the roadway.

The fire moved so quickly that an engine from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was caught in the flames, and nine firefighters had to deploy special shelters after they were trapped, leaving all with minor injuries.

“I think this is as bad as it gets, " Betty Biros said.

Independence was the hardest hit of the small towns affected by what became known as the Inyo Complex fire.

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About 20 lightning strikes hit the Inyo National Forest on July 6, sparking 10 separate wildfires. Most were quickly contained, but by the next morning, two distinct fires emerged, fueled by temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, high winds and low humidity.

Feeding on tinder-dry sage brush, the fire moved toward Independence, whipped by winds of up to 60 mph. The wind was blowing so hard that 10,000 acres were ablaze within half an hour.

“It actually looked like a lava flow, and it was just coming and coming,” said Jan Ontano, 54, a clerk in the county assessor’s office. The fire got within a quarter of a mile of her house, and the smoke was so thick that neighbors couldn’t see across the street.

When the evacuation was lifted, Ontano braced for the worst but was relieved to find her house still intact. “I was totally prepared not to have my home,” she said.

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Independence is a small town in a picturesque setting. There are just two gas stations and the Subway sandwich shop is prized as one of the main lunch eateries in town.

Some of the residents are from Southern California, happy to have fled the rat race and congestion of L.A. and to wake up each morning to the sight of the granite-capped Sierra to the west and the Inyos to the east.

Many residents work for the county, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or the state. The town school has fewer than 75 students, and the graduating senior class is typically fewer than 10 each year.

The main drag is 11 blocks long, and a motorist can pass through in just two minutes, even while staying at the 25 mph speed limit.

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But living in the wilderness comes with risk, and locals say they have long worried about wildfires racing down the mountains.

Never before had they seen anything like this.

“The fires started in the high mountain valleys. Frequently they burn upward and they burn themselves out,” said Ron Juliff, Inyo County administrative officer. “But in this case, they turned around and came right down to the valley. And that’s something we’re not accustomed to.”

The fire destroyed the town’s water reservoir, a small concrete pool whose wooden walls and metal roof collapsed, littering the water with ashes. Since then residents have had to either boil their water or pick up bottled water that has been donated to the town.

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It was with some amazement that residents returned to their homes and found nearly everything spared.

“The day, it was 7/7/07, the luckiest day of the century,” said Ontano, whose home stands on the western edge of town, nearest to the burned areas. “I feel like I won the lottery.”

Even though Lee Roeser, 52, lost $25,000 worth of hay, his home was spared. “It looked like when the fire was coming God put out his hand over” my house, Roeser said. But hay is at a premium in a year in which ranchers are already facing a severe drought.

Firefighters made a stand near the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery as helicopters dumped pink fire retardant on the brush surrounding the historic landmark’s granite tower.

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“The firefighters did a wonderful job,” said Bob Wakefield, manager of the hatchery, which was built in 1916 to raise trout to replenish streams in the back country. But about 1,000 rainbow trout, which would have been ready to breed next spring, perished when part of the hatchery’s water supply was contaminated with ash.

At the Eastern California Museum, officials hurriedly removed what they could, carrying out original photographs of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar and baskets made by Shoshone weavers dating to the 1880s.

They had to leave behind century-old wooden wagons used by DWP workers when they built the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

“I kept thinking, oh my God, it’s like a tinderbox out there,” said Roberta Harlan, the museum’s administrator. “This museum here, in this community, is an icon.”

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Everything was saved

The town took root when Lt. Col. George S. Evans of the California Calvary established a camp July 4, 1862, to protect settlers and miners from attacks by Native Americans, according to the California State Military Museum’s website.

The town became the Inyo County seat in the late 19th century when its chief competitor for the site, a camp called Kearsarge, disappeared under an avalanche, said county Supervisor Jim Bilyeu.

Like the rest of the Owens Valley, Independence has had a stormy relationship with the DWP since agents posed as farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights and then built an aqueduct to redirect water to Los Angeles.

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The DWP didn’t become any more popular in the 1970s when it moved a major office about 40 miles north to Bishop, taking with it a number of jobs. A major insurance company also left town at about the same time, reducing the town’s population to about 600 from 1,000, Bilyeu said.

But whatever lingering resentments the residents have about DWP, some said they were thankful for the agency’s fast action to help restore electricity and for its efforts to restore a normal water supply.

Enough people have moved into Independence to keep the population stable.

The town still has problems to solve as a result of the fire. Temporary water tanks are not expected to be operational until Wednesday.

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Inyo County officials need to devise a permanent replacement for the damaged reservoir, which could cost more than $1 million -- a princely sum for the county’s $70-million to $80-million annual budget.

And there are fears about the dangers posed by future dust storms and heavy rainfall.

“That’s the double whammy,” Juliff said. “We’ve had the driest winter on record so you’d think we want to do rain dances. But now we don’t want the mud and flood coming down on us.”

ron.lin@latimes.com

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