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Great pumpkin tradition rises from the ashes

The air smelled like ash instead of roasted corn.

The miniature train hauling families around Lombardi Ranch on Friday passed singed scarecrows and the scorched carcass of its popular antique firetruck.

There was no cornfield maze, no petting zoo, no snack stand, no stage for the Country Music Allstars’ concert.

But visitors to the Saugus ranch this weekend -- for a Halloween festival that almost wasn’t -- will likely be counting their blessings, not their losses.

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The Buckweed fire that destroyed 21 homes and blackened more than 38,000 acres in the Santa Clarita Valley this week touched down at Lombardi Ranch, sweeping across the farm so quickly that owners Bob and Joann Lombardi barely had time to hustle visiting families out.

With roads closed, power out and no way to contact the ranch by phone, word spread quickly through town that the 42-year-old community touchstone and its legendary Halloween festival were goners.

I first made my way there Tuesday, urged by residents I met at a Saugus evacuation center who were concerned about the fate of the Lombardi farm even as they worried about their own homes.

“I think we’re ready to pack it in,” a weary Joann Lombardi told me then, as her four children and eight of her grandchildren sorted through burned pumpkins, hauled away debris and tried vainly to sweep the blanket of ashes into piles that kept scattering in the gusting winds. “I don’t think we’ll reopen again.”

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But by Friday the gusts had calmed, the community had rallied around the farm and the Lombardis had gotten their second wind. The families began to trickle back in.

Throw a stone in any direction in the Santa Clarita Valley this time of year and you’re liable to hit a patch of dirt decorated with bales of hay and pumpkins for sale. The loss of the Lombardis’ pumpkin patch wouldn’t have deprived any families of a jack o’lantern.

But it would have been a psychological blow to a community in recovery.

Lombardi Ranch is tucked away in the Saugus most people never see, where earth-toned condominium complexes, shopping malls and broad boulevards give way to two-lane canyon roads lined by stables, trailer parks, orchards and -- now -- hillsides charred and littered with the fire’s debris.

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For more than 40 years, a Halloween visit to Lombardi Ranch was a rite of a passage for valley families. Kids spent hours wandering through its cornfield maze and playing cops and robbers on the paddy wagon. For the parents, there were concerts by local musicians, roasted corn, fresh-picked vegetables and a chance to relax and let the kids run free.

The ranch, in the Lombardi family for 60 years, has become far more than the sum of its parts. It’s where local teenagers get their first jobs, elementary school students learn where food comes from, and churches turn for produce to auction off at fundraisers.

And on Friday, it was the place where a community’s healing could start.

While children poked through piles of pumpkins salvaged from the fire, their mothers stood in scattered knots, sharing stories and catching up, joking as only survivors can. “Does your motor home smell as bad as ours right now?” asked one young woman, juggling a baby and a toddler.

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Another dared to complain about being cooped up at home with her three kids while the schools were closed because of the fires. “I gave him a smoke mask and sent him outside,” she said, pointing toward a rambunctious boy perched on a fence that he had been warned twice not to climb.

For Danielle Inzalaco, Friday’s visit was a link to the simple, family-centered life she sought in Castaic 13 years ago when she left Northridge. Every Halloween, Lombardis’ is the scene of a reunion for her big Italian family.

“There’s like 20 of us and we all get together at the pumpkin patch,” she said. This year, the fire interrupted their tradition. Her family was evacuated and spent part of the week living in their RV. When she heard Lombardis’ was reopening, she hustled right over with her two sons, 9-year-old Gino and toddler Rocco, as if she needed to see it to believe.

Joann Lombardi still marvels over the crowds that turned out last Sunday, when the fire had begun creeping over the mountain from Agua Dulce, darkening the sky above the ranch and clouding the air with blowing ash. “Even when it was clear the fire was near, we had a hard time getting people to leave,” she said.

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I’m not surprised, given the stories we’ve collected from across Southern California this week from those whose lives were upended by some of the worst blazes in our state’s history.

We saw the determination to hold on -- beyond reason sometimes -- to homes and routines. Residents who were told to evacuate but refused to leave. People who returned and spent hours sifting through the ashes of their burned-out homes, until they found a link to their former lives -- a favorite cheese slicer, an ancient soccer trophy.

In Saugus, it’s not so much about buying pumpkins, but about the need to cling to something transcendent, a community tradition that even in the midst of ashes can outlast tragedy.

The scorched hills surrounding the ranch may be littered now with broken branches and the hulls of blackened trees, reminders of the fire’s fury. But the parking lot is ready for visitors, its spaces neatly marked off with new lines, drawn in clean, white chalk.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com


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