Piece of Mind: Peace and quiet is just fine

A year ago this week La Cañada was humming along pretty much as usual. Daytime temperatures were in the upper 90s. Some of the private schools had already opened their doors for the new school year and the public schools were poised to reopen the following Monday.

It was relatively quiet, just as it is at the tail end of summer every year.

Nonetheless there was some activity to report in late August 2009. Ground was broken for the new site of Flintridge Bookstore. It was a bright moment for the owners of the shop that had been heavily damaged the previous April when a runaway big rig crashed into it — after killing two people and injuring many others. That tragedy was in the back of everyone's minds as the ground-breaking ceremony took place. "This is a giant leap toward restoring a beloved business," said a state official's field rep.

Also that week Flintridge Prep unveiled its new softball field. In crime news, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported that a suspect had been arrested for a string of baby-formula thefts from the Vons store in Plaza de La Cañada.

That Wednesday afternoon we were just finishing our work on Thursday's paper. And then, shortly after 3:30, we heard the wail of sirens. Fire engines swept westbound on Foothill past our newspaper office and could be seen heading up the Crest. Turning our eyes toward the Angeles National Forest, we could see a plume of smoke rise above the ridge.

The conflagration soon dubbed the Station fire, Los Angeles County's largest wildfire to date, had just been touched off two miles north of our city limits. But on that lazy afternoon it seemed no one was terribly worried the fire would become a real threat.

We reported in the next day's paper that a blaze had started near mile-marker 29 on Angeles Crest Highway. La Cañada's public safety coordinator, Peter Castro, told our reporter Wednesday evening that the fire was slow-moving. As sunset neared, it had burned 25 acres and was moving away from the city. "We believe [firefighters] have stopped it at the ridge," he told us. He urged local residents to remain calm.

Angeles National Forest district fuels officer Scott Lowden seemed to agree with Castro. "It's going to be nasty, but it sounded like it was holding. There will probably be a couple days of mop-up," Lowden told us.

One full week later the wildfire, not yet contained, had consumed 140,150 acres, had led to the deaths of two firefighters and had been blamed for the injuries of six other individuals. Several homes were devoured by the flames, but none in La Cañada, where more than 750 homes had to be evacuated. We and our neighbors along the foothills were shell-shocked, but it looked like our communities were finally out of immediate danger. The necessary emergency declarations were made and insurance adjusters called.

The Station fire toasted 161,000 acres by the time it was extinguished in mid-October.

We will not soon forget the fallen firefighters, Arnie Quinones and Ted Hall. And we will for a time remember the fear we shared those nights after the fire jumped the ridge and ran right up to our backyards, leaving behind an ungodly mix of fire pollution that fouled the air for weeks and ashes that blew into our homes for months. The people who live in our mudslide-prone areas, many today making repairs from the winter's storms, will coexist with K-rails installed to protect their properties from runoff from the denuded hillsides for up to five years.

With the Station fire still too fresh in our minds, no one in our office is complaining that these last days of summer 2010 are quiet around town. Give us slow and steady, safe and sound.

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