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LaBonge sifts the ashes and finds hope

There may be some who love Griffith Park as much as Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, but no one enjoys showing it off more than he does.

The tour he gave me Wednesday morning was not the usual cheery adventure, though. His beloved park was scorched, with columns of smoke rising all around us and trails littered with charred rabbits frozen in running poses.

Flames still danced in the brush here and there as we made our way up toward Dante’s View and Mt. Hollywood, with LaBonge checking to see if the trees he had planted over many years had survived a blaze that destroyed hundreds of acres Tuesday and Wednesday.

LaBonge was exhausted, having slept just three hours before waking at 4 a.m. Wednesday and heading back to the park he first visited as a child living in nearby Silver Lake. For LaBonge and his seven brothers, Griffith Park was a 4,200-acre playground, and he always speaks about the city’s great treasure as if it were one of the wonders of the world.

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“This is the most beautiful walk any city could have,” he said, typically hyperbolic as we left the Griffith Observatory in his ash-coated Mercury Grand Marquis and began climbing the dirt path known as the Charlie Turner Trailhead.

LaBonge needed to be at a news conference within the hour, but he was like a kid who doesn’t want to come in for dinner. He pointed out the tree planted in memory of George Harrison, whom he referred to as -- surprise -- the greatest Beatle.

“Oh, look!” he said, interrupting himself as a crow flew out of the brush as if to assure LaBonge the park is not dead.

But it smelled of death as helicopters swarmed and yellow-jacketed work crews traipsed across lunar, ash-strewn fields. Over the ridge to the north, the fire was only 50% contained, and acrid smoke burned the eyes.

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“We’re going to go through a bit of a fire zone here, but it’s OK,” LaBonge reassured as he steered carefully along the cliff’s edge, smoke flumes in every direction but no wall of fire. “This is where we all played as kids, and it’s gone. It’s like a Hollywood set, if you were making a movie about what it looked like at the end of the world.”

The 4th District councilman was feeling angry, a little helpless and grateful it hadn’t been worse. In January, he helped plant 29 trees honoring the crewmen killed while fighting a devastating Griffith Park fire in 1933.

With a park this large, he knows it’s hard to prevent someone careless or deliberately malicious from setting a fire. And nature was in on the conspiracy, he noted, with a drought that has turned the park into kindling.

LaBonge’s wife, Brigid, who rode along out of curiosity and to pitch in as needed, helped me and two LaBonge staffers clear debris from rockslides that blocked the winding path. The councilman, meanwhile, had his eye on our destination -- the cluster of trees and shrubs a few hundred yards up the road.

Dante’s View was named for a park lover named Dante Orgolini, who planted a garden there in 1964. He turned the stewardship over to Charlie Turner more than a decade later, and then LaBonge became the voluntary keeper of Dante’s View in 1993.

LaBonge was definitely the man for the job. L.A.'s biggest cheerleader didn’t just oversee a small garden well-kept, he turned it into a celebration of the city’s wonder, leading schoolkids and seniors up there for quiet meditation and tree-plantings.

And so it was no surprise that as the fire intensified Tuesday night, the councilman nervously roamed these hills, watching wildlife flee and fearing for a place he holds dear. He knew the firefighters’ first priority was threatened homes in Los Feliz, but he asked them to please do what they could to save Dante’s View as well, and the bird sanctuary that runs along a nearby creek canyon.

The bird sanctuary is still in good shape. But not all of Dante’s View survived.

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“This used to be lush and green,” LaBonge said as he led me through the terraced, smoldering grove to the plaque honoring Orgolini. He brightened when he saw a 2-foot Canary Island pine that hadn’t been touched by fire.

“It made it,” he said, telling me that he had planted it recently with students from Rio Vista Elementary in North Hollywood.

Nearby, a 12-foot tree was also in good shape.

“I planted it when it was 6 inches tall 20 years ago, and it survived,” LaBonge said.

Then he stood next to a 10-foot Canary Island pine with seared needles and a slightly charred trunk.

“This one I planted in 1998 in honor of my mother, who died. It’s taken some damage, but they come back sometimes.”

We tiptoed past a smoldering, red-hot wooden step as we made our way to a green tool locker. LaBonge was eager to check on something. A field mouse had been living in that box for years, he said as he worked the padlock. He was afraid of what he’d find, but when the door swung open, there was no sign of the mouse.

Had he run out through the hole in the bottom when the fire approached, and if so, did he survive?

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“Oh, there he is!” LaBonge said as a little brown body scampered under the tools, then stood in the corner of the shed looking up at him. “You made it!”

As he stepped back to take in the grove, LaBonge thought of one good thing about the fire.

“It put the view back in Dante’s View,” he said.

It had become so dense, you couldn’t see much despite the elevation of roughly 1,500 feet. But now the Observatory was visible, and the hills of Glendale could be seen to the northeast.

As we took it all in, I noticed a flare-up in a smoldering tree. LaBonge took a shovel and flipped dirt up there, and then I spelled him, but neither of us could smother the flames.

LaBonge was determined to prevent the spread of the fire to the trees that had survived. He took hold of a smoldering branch and tried to separate it from the rest of the tree. The keeper of Dante’s View gave it his best, but finally gave up and decided to alert firefighters.

Before LaBonge and I hiked down the mountain through the bird sanctuary, we went up to the top of Mt. Hollywood.

The 360-degree view from up there takes in ocean, mountain, the sprawling valleys and the Hollywood sign. LaBonge called it one of the great places in the city, “if not the world,” and said the park would be back. With time, and some rain, he said, the flowers will come up first, and a few years after that, the shrubs and trees.

“This is the good luck pole everybody hits,” he said, tapping a green column that marks the summit of the park. “But we had bad luck yesterday.”

*

Reach the columnist at

steve.lopez@latimes.com.


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