Firefighters Wednesday successfully cut off the Station fire’s march toward several foothill communities, lessening the immediate threat to homes and allowing crews to refocus their efforts on other hot spots.
The destructive and deadly Station fire, which began Aug. 26 two miles north of La Cañada, slowed down overnight Tuesday, but still consumed about 13,000 more acres, pushing the total so far to 140,150 acres. The fire remained 22% contained as of Wednesday afternoon.
“It was staggering to watch this fire climb toward homes at 1 a.m. the other night with a line of firefighters ready to do battle,” Assemblyman Anthony Portantino said at Wednesday’s news conference at the Station fire’s interagency command center at Hansen Dam Park.
The 218-square mile fire had destroyed 62 homes, 27 outbuildings and three commercial properties. Nearly 4,130 firefighters from as far away as Alaska and West Virginia were battling the blaze.
Six people have been injured in the fire and two Los Angeles County firefighters were killed (see story Page A3).
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, county Supervisor Michael Antonovich said.
“The area has not experienced these types of fires in over 100 years,” he said.
The next move for local and state officials will be to help residents affected by the fire rebuild their lives, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the news conference.
The governor said he signed an executive order to re-boost the recovery effort, waiving replacement fees for important personal documents, such as identification cards and birth certificates. He also sought the assistance of the state Franchise Tax Board to waive late fees on tax extensions due to the fire.
“This will cut through the red tape and free up additional resources, so we could assist in the additional response and recovery efforts,” Schwarzenegger said of the order.
An emergency resolution, which was passed Tuesday, would allow for Section 8 rental vouchers to be available to qualified residents, Antonovich said. The resolution would also direct county public works officials to review watersheds and clear out debris, he said.
The supervisor also called for more “common sense policies for brush clearance and firefighting abilities that safeguard and protect the public and their property.”
On Tuesday evening, at a brief special meeting of the La Cañada Flintridge City Council, a declaration of a local emergency was adopted by unanimous vote.
“As a result of the Station fire, this proclamation is based on the fact that the community was in peril. It allows us to get emergency funding,” said Kevin Chun, director of administrative services.
Mayor Laura Olhasso told the city staff their work throughout the local crisis had been “amazing.” She also expressed appreciation for the firefighters and for the fact that no La Cañada houses had been lost to the blaze.
La Cañada Unified School District campuses, which had been scheduled to open Monday for the first day of the new school year, delayed opening until yesterday due to the fire. The local private school campuses who had already opened for the school year also closed their doors while the city was still impacted by smoke. (See related story, Page A4).
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory closed its La Cañada Flintridge facility beginning at 6 p.m. Friday and kept it closed to non-essential personnel until Tuesday, out of caution, according to JPL spokesperson Jane Platt. She said it was the first time in any of the current staffers’ recollections that the jet lab had been closed due to the threat of fire.
LCF homes evacuated
More than 750 La Cañada homes were evacuated beginning late Thursday and through the weekend, as the fire advanced west toward La Crescenta and east toward Altadena.
Tony Cianciarulo, who lives on Summit Crest within view of the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, said he and his neighbors were issued a mandatory evacuation order last Thursday night. Cianciarulo chose to stay on his property, however, and watched for three days as Los Angeles County Fire and California Forest Service ground and air crews worked to hold the flames at bay.
The fire burned right up to the backyard of the house across the street, he said, but the firefighters were on hand to make sure no structures ignited.
“A lot of people did [evacuate], but that is just a waste of time,” Cianciarulo said. “You move all your stuff out and all the smoke gets in your house. I trust the firefighters, they did a terrific job.”
Omar Moheize, who lives on Bay Tree Road just off of Angeles Crest Highway, said that when he was ordered to evacuate Thursday night he sent his wife, sister and daughter to the Hilton Hotel in Pasadena. He and several other neighbors chose to stay and they watched as the fire crept down the hill. The fire came within 200 yards of his backyard and then stopped. The smoke, Moheize said, was terrible.
“When it first happened, we didn’t believe it,” Moheize said. “Then on my street there were about 10 fire trucks and we starting talking to them and mingling with them, and talking to them about strategy.”
The firefighters’ efforts, particularly the targeted aerial water drops, were impressive, Moheize added.
“There was a confidence in the firefighters and their resources,” Moheize said. “There were trucks from as far away as Riverside County.”
Linda Labrie lives on Palm Drive one block north of Foothill Boulevard. She and her neighbors stood out in the street on Saturday night and watched the flames burn to the north. She was struck, she said, by how the community unified in the face of the fire.
“The neighbors, who always just waved at each other and fly off to do their thing, were standing and talking together about how we can help each other,” Labrie said. “What this really did was make us pay attention to our neighbors, pay attention to our friends, and make us realize that this is much more important than what we do every day.”
As the fire became more of a reality for some in the La Cañada area, residents seeking shelter and a place to put their pets arrived at the evacuation center in the north gym at La Cañada High School.
“Fifty people came here last night and hundreds have been coming in and out,” Red Cross Public Information Officer Mary Schnecter said Saturday. “They’re just getting some water and something to eat. This is a place where people can come in and think about what to do next.”
Joseph and Bonnie Robinson, brother and sister who both graduated from La Cañada High (Joseph in 2001, Bonnie in 2005), were evacuated from their home on Alta Canyada and Linda Vista at 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
“Never thought I’d spend the night in this gym,” Bonnie Robinson joked. “We spent the night here, it was fine. We couldn’t really sleep.”
“We’re checking updates every hour trying to figure out where we are,” Joseph said. “We’re a little worried. We don’t really know what the next step is.”
“There’s nothing to do, really,” Bonnie said about staying in the gym. “You’re just waiting.”
The Robinsons have two dogs and three cats, all of whom they brought to the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA station at La Cañada High.
Steve McNall, president and CEO of PHS, was on hand to ensure things were running smoothly.
By late Saturday, the organization had received over 120 pets not including the red-tailed hawk, a California turkey vulture, a bobcat and 48 white doves from the Clear Creek Education Center.
“Red Cross is taking care of the people and we’re taking care of the pets,” McNall said. “Right now, we’re maxxed out at the Pasadena shelter. We’re out of space.”
Area restaurants, including Los Gringos Locos, also delivered food to the evacuation center without being prompted, according to evacuated resident Neil Peterson, who, although he was very grateful to the efforts of all involved said with a gentle laugh he never wants “to be a refugee again” — because resting on a cot is definitely not as comfortable as his own bed.
A summer heat wave also made the gym uncomfortably hot for some. Word went out Monday that the help of air conditioning vendors with portable units would be welcome.
LCF Country Club
Lee Dreyfuss, general manager of the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, said he and his staff were in the midst of their afternoon meeting on Thursday when a Forest Service helicopter dropped down on one of the club’s two ponds unannounced and began taking up water.
The club did not have a prior agreement with L.A. County Fire or the Forest Service for the use of their water, Dreyfuss said, but immediately made its ponds and facilities available to public safety personnel.
The club did ask that the ponds be replenished, Dreyfuss said, which they were, first via fire hydrants and then by L.A. County Fire water trucks.
Two major events at the club were disrupted by the fire, Dreyfuss said. A wedding had to be moved to the University Club in Pasadena, and a membership appreciate event was canceled.
On Monday, the club began cleaning up its golf course and surrounding streets.
“The helicopters, especially the really big ones, when they came in they knocked down some trees, and they pulled some of the sand out of the traps,” Dreyfuss said. “Two-thirds of our front nine had some sort of debris on it.”
Dreyfuss said Monday the club would reopen as soon as Angeles Crest Highway was open to traffic.
Praise given firefighters
Grassroots efforts to show appreciation to the firefighters and law enforcement agencies were underway immediately. By Monday afternoon many residents’ vehicles were painted with thank-you notes to the firefighters and yellow ribbons appeared tied to La Cañada trees.
Local grocery stores also did their part. Together, Ralphs and Vons donated thousands of bottles of water and Gatorade, as well as granola bars and lunchables to displaced residents and public safety personnel.
Daymond Rice, spokesperson for Vons, said his company transported supplies to the La Cañada High School evacuation center on Friday. A second shipment was delivered to firefighters on the front lines on Saturday, he added.
“We have a long-standing commitment to giving back to our neighbors in a time of need,” Rice said. “Cleary this is a disaster — this is a time when we need to take care of the greater community.”
More than 100 firefighters spent Tuesday night at Mt. Wilson to protect a historic observatory and an array of telescopes and communication towers for radio, TV and public safety agencies.
on other fronts
Firefighters continued to protect the communication hub Wednesday, as well as other communities in Sierra Madre, Acton and Little Tujunga Canyon.
Fire crews took advantage of the increasing humidity and lit several back burns earlier this week to create a buffer between homes and the blaze.
Along with the hundreds of homes that were saved in the foothills, Glendale firefighters Wednesday were also able to salvage a 300-year-old oak tree in Deukmejian Wilderness Park.
“I didn’t think we were going to be able to save it and all of sudden we saved it,” said Capt. John Presten of Station 29.
Presten hosed down the tree as flames quickly approached, as other Glendale firefighters tried to keep a maintained a constant flow of water to Presten’s his hose line.
A wall of fire crept behind Presten as he stood his ground to protect the tree, Station 21 Capt. Cody Smith said, adding that the tree was close to burning down.
But on Wednesday afternoon, it remained very much alive — a stark contrast to the blackened landscape surrounding it.
Firefighters will be performing overhaul work along the foothills for the next two weeks, officials said. Smoke and debris will likely continue to be seen from the foothills as firefighters continue their work.