Advertisement
California

Inside the battle to save the Reagan Library as fire laid siege to landmark

Air Force One at the Reagan library with flames in the distance.
Air Force One on display at the Reagan Library as the Easy fire approaches Wednesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When the Easy fire erupted early Wednesday morning in Simi Valley, the stakes of this particular firefight quickly came into focus:

Save the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The pre-dawn blaze, stoked by strong easterly winds, was racing toward the hilltop compound surrounded by nearly 100 acres of rolling grasslands.

Long vulnerable to wildfire, the library had taken efforts to protect the facility — where Ronald and Nancy Reagan are buried — but this particular assault was unprecedented.

Advertisement

Maneuvering amid 60-mph winds, helicopters circled, unleashing their water drops behind the library. Two super-scooper planes swooped low to hit the advancing flames with such an inundation that it created a rainbow in the morning sun.

Every two minutes, a new rotation of choppers or super-scoopers dipped into the canyon behind the library, turning fire into smoke.

“They are getting beat up good, those pilots,” said JD Nees, who flew helicopters for the Navy reserve. With wind gusts reaching 60 mph — strong enough to knock a person off the feet — the choppers bounced and danced in the unpredictable turbulence.
A hand crew crested the hill, the inmates working to tamp down the smoldering soil. “That’s a good sign,” Nees said.

When library planners selected the site in 1987, its location in eastern Ventura County was undeveloped and praised for its views of the adjoining mountains and its Western disposition, isolated and scenic.

Times staff photographer Wally Skalij has covered many wildfires for the paper. On Monday, he went to Simi Valley for the Easy fire, where he got a notable shot.

Advertisement

But its rural character brought with it the inherent risk of wildfire. After the firestorms of 2017, 300 goats were brought in to help reduce the excessive fuel load, part of the county’s vegetation management program.

As the Easy fire burned south, it swept down a ridge toward a tract of homes off Madera Road. An off-duty LAPD officer, wearing a raid jacket, began yelling to residents that the fire was approaching. As flames grew visible, homeowners on Roosevelt Court began to make plans.

“I pulled the cars out into the driveway, put the passports and bank documents in one and my musical instruments in the other car,” said Rory Kaplan, who moved here in 2001 when the homes were built.

“I am ready to go,” he said.

The news to evacuate came over a loudspeaker from the Simi Valley police, and Kaplan joined the exodus with his neighbors. Kaplan believed his home would be safe.

“One thing is sure, they aren’t going to let Reagan’s library burn — and that protects us” he said.
Soon the roads out of Simi Valley had clogged with residents streaming south toward Thousand Oaks, cars and SUVs jammed with boxes and treasured objects.

In 1993, two years after the library opened, Reagan stood on the grounds of the library, accompanied by two dozen firefighters, a convoy of fire engines and a fire department helicopter.

He delivered a half-hour speech praising the heroic efforts of the fire crews who had battled the firestorms earlier that year.

Advertisement

Years earlier, the Reagan family had lost their ranch in Malibu to fire, which the president’s daughter, Maureen, mentioned to visitors.

“We live in a place with unique terrain that’s continually touched by fire,” she said, “and thank God we have unique and special men and women that are trained to stop those fires when they threaten people.”

Times staff writer Thomas Curwen contributed to this report.


Newsletter
Get our Essential California newsletter
Advertisement