by Alexis Lahr
photography by Liz Lucsko
In a matter of minutes, lives changed forever. Memories, dreams and plans for the future melted away. It was more than just “stuff” that was lost. It was years of hard work; It was a way of life. In only a few minutes, San Dimas Canyon changed.
In September 2002, the Williams wildfire blazed through the canyon, leaving its mark on the lives of the residents. More than 75 percent of the homes in the canyon were destroyed, and more than 38,000 acres burned. Though the fire was fully contained nearly one week after it began, evidence of it would remain for months-even years. The impact on the residents of the canyon surpasses boundaries of days and weeks. For some residents, their entire way of life has been changed forever. In the weeks after the fire, telephone poles blocked roads, and power lines dangled in trees. The air smelled scorched, and dust filled every breath. Fallen trees lay everywhere, and the leaves on those trees still standing were curled and black from the heat. Once treasured homes were reduced to smoldering piles of twisted metal and ash. Deep piles of dirt formed in the canyon, narrowing roads and nearly burying homes.
The Fight to Save the Canyon
Although San Dimas Canyon was destroyed, it did not fall easily. There was a fight to save the canyon and the historic way of life it represents. Reiner Kruger, facility manager at Monrovia Nursery, loved the solitude and peacefulness of San Dimas Canyon. Kruger, 49, lived in the main fork with his six-year-old daughter, who spent every other week with him. Kruger poured 10 years of hard work into his home. He even made triple house payments at times and finally paid it off on Sept. 1, 2002. Little did he know that in just three weeks, it would be reduced to a pile of ashes.
When Kruger woke up that Monday morning, he saw a huge column of smoke overhead and knew he would not be going to work that day. Instead, he spent the day raking leaves and performing fire clearance around his home. Dressed in shorts and sandals and equipped with a 150-foot fire hose, fire pump and a nearby hydrant, he thought he was ready. Firefighters began to appear in the canyon that morning and advised Kruger to evacuate. He had fought three other fires in his life and figured this “was not going to be a big deal.” Anticipating a slow burning fire, he collected a few pictures and papers, but did not think about packing. It was not until 3 p.m. that Kruger saw the first flames at the top of the ridge. The air became smoky, but an eerie calm prevailed. Kruger walked home from a visit with his neighbor two hours later and transferred the power in his house to run off a small generator, just as the power was shut down. It was only a matter of time before the monster appeared in his front yard.
Firemen discovered that the water pressure in the hydrant was quickly dropping, and they were told to pull back. Kruger again was advised to evacuate, but he felt he would be OK and decided to stay.
Now clothed in boots, jeans, goggles and a hard hat, he used garden hoses to fill garbage bags with water and wet down his house. “It was deadly calm,” he describes, when suddenly a blast of heat came from the canyon. Embers that looked like “giant hail stones on fire,” began falling everywhere. The grass spontaneously burst into flames, and Kruger moved quickly to put out the spot fires. He says it reminded him of an old “I Love Lucy” episode involving an out of control conveyor belt. Just when he put one fire out, another flared up. Finally, it became more than he could handle. A sequoia tree in his front yard caught on fire and ignited an inflatable boat, stored next to it. “It smelled like 50 tires burning,” Kruger remembers.
His neighbor’s porch caught on fire, and the heat began to cook the side of Kruger’s house. He tried to wet down his house, but there was not enough water pressure. The wind spread the flames to his house, and he could hardly breathe. Thinking he could catch his breath inside his burning home, Kruger ran through the thick black smoke. He then realized his pickup truck, which was his only means to escape the flames, was so close to the fire that the tail lights were beginning to melt into a sticky ooze. Blinded by the thick smoke, he took a deep breath, ran out the back door and jumped into his truck, forgetting the few possessions he had packed. Kruger blindly drove down his narrow driveway and parked in a clearing farther down the canyon. With the whole canyon on fire, any possible escape route now was blocked.
About 20 minutes passed, and Kruger decided it had died down enough for him to go back to his house. He was forced to stop his truck 50 feet from his house because a fallen tree blocked the road. His curiosity got the best of him, and he hiked the rest of the way there. He got as close as he could, and was even able to peer into his basement, when a tree fell and nearly hit him. Kruger felt the hair on his arms curl and heard something explode in his garage. He knew it was time to get out of there, so he drove back to the clearing and watched the remaining homes burn. It was not the flames that scared Kruger, but the heat and the air. “It was like sticking your head in the oven and taking a breath,” he says. “I figured I would get scorched, but I didn’t think I was going to die,” he adds.
The fight for his house was not about money or materialism. It was about saving the home he had poured 10 years into. It was about saving belongings he had owned for years “family things that are supposed to be passed down to your kids,” he says sadly. “I can sleep at night and know I did the best I could. It hurts, and you lose a lot, but you can always get more,” he adds.
Kruger was not alone in his desperate attempt to fight the fire. Dana Brown, president of the San Dimas Canyon Improvement Association, also tried to save his home, but he was held back by the fire department from even getting to it in time. Brown, 53, lived on the west fork of San Dimas Canyon for 27 years in a house he built by hand. This is his third year as president of the SDCIA, which has been the area’s homeowners group for 76 years.
Brown says he loves the serenity of the canyon. “You can live in the woods in peace and quiet and still work in the city. You get the best of both worlds.” Like most mountain residents, Brown was aware of the risk of forest fires but was not worried. “In the back of your mind, there is always that chance, and you prepare yourself, but you really don’t think it’s going to happen to you,” he says.
One Monday in September it happened. Like Kruger, Brown spent most of the day clearing anything that could burn, watering down the hillside and running the sprinklers. He had a 1,500-gallon water tank in front of his house, and he too felt prepared to fight the fire. Firefighters were set up around the cabins for most of the day.
Around 6:30 that evening, firemen started spraying the houses with six inches of white foam to protect them from burning. Brown opened a tank holding 10,000 gallons of water reserved for fires. The water lasted a few hours, but the firemen were now in the dark with a limited water supply. They began backing their trucks out of the narrow road as the fire came down the sides of the canyon, across the top of the ridge and behind his house.
“It was wild looking,” Brown remembers. He describes seeing 100-foot flames on three sides and seeing “big chunks of burning debris bouncing down the mountain.” Despite this, he was not scared. “Being scared gets in the way of what you have to do,” he laughs. Meanwhile, Brown moved a half-mile down to the mouth of the canyon. He planned to wait until the fire burned down to him, and then get behind it to go back to his home. He knew his home had a chance to survive the initial fire, but would not stand up against the embers that would smolder and catch things on fire later that night.
Brown hiked to a spot 100 yards from his home, when two firemen spotted him. He was threatened with arrest if he went any farther. Brown brushed off the threats, so the firemen threw him in a fire department Suburban, sat on him and drove out of the canyon. He tried to sneak back into the canyon three times throughout the night, but he was caught each time. The next morning, Brown went to see his home and found out that it had burned down around midnight. “I sat down and said goodbye to it and told her I’d be back,” he says, almost in a whisper.
He was able to salvage two motorcycles from his garage and a few tools. He had taken both of his trucks out of the canyon before the fire, as well as a couple of guitars, two pairs of Levi jeans and three T-shirts. He had just spent $10,000 remodeling his dining room and kitchen and was working on laying a marble floor. A stack of 200 marble tiles was visible in the pile of melted, broken, scorched rubble. “That was my world,” he says. “Everything I wanted was there. When you get to be my age, and you haven’t moved in 30 years, you get quite a collection.”
“A lot of people don’t realize these are not just cabins; these are homes,” Kruger notes. “I want people to know what we had up there.” Kruger was one of the few San Dimas Canyon residents with fire insurance, but it did not help him entirely. He says he was significantly underinsured and lost nearly $150,000. Brown says only about 10 percent of the canyon residents had fire insurance, simply because most could not afford it. He adds that many people could not even get fire insurance because no new policies were being written due to the drought. “For all practical purposes, fire insurance was too expensive and unavailable,” he claims.
Brown is still convinced that he could have saved his home if he had been able to go back into the canyon, but he realizes the firemen were just doing their job. He says that although most residents praised the fire department, they did not like being threatened with arrest if they did not evacuate. They feel the decision to evacuate should be a personal one. Some residents have even decided to file lawsuits.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion chief Bill Niccum offers a different perspective. Niccum, who has been a firefighter for 26 years, is based at Fire Station 64 in San Dimas. He was assigned to structure protection in the west fork of the canyon during the Williams fire. Niccum says evacuations are enforced “for the safety of the public and the firefighters.” Once a situation becomes an emergency, roads can become blocked, and it can be hard to get everyone out quickly and safely, he adds.
Mount Baldy homeowner Harvey Good agrees with Niccum. Good was a volunteer firefighter for the Mount Baldy Fire Department for 30 years. He spent 21 years as captain and six as chief. Good now assists with dispatch and photography. He feels that people who refuse to evacuate not only endanger themselves, but also the lives of the firemen who attempt to save them. “Many people don’t realize what it is like in a fire when it actually gets into a community and homes are starting to burn. The smoke is awful. You get sick,” says Good, who stayed at Mount Baldy during the evacuation. “Many people can easily be overcome.”
Some residents believe changes need to be made to prevent similar wildfire incidents. Brown feels there needs to be “a little more active forest management. We have 50 years of growth sitting because nobody is allow-ed to touch it.” He feels that controlled burns might be a possible solution.
Kruger is upset too that the dam was repeatedly drained for repairs. Had there been water in it, the turnaround time for helicopters making water drops could have been reduced. This, combined with the fifth year of below average rainfall, produced horrible fire conditions. “That has to be one of the worst possible situations to fight a fire,” Good says.
Niccum says there were some significant obstacles to battling the fire. Some of the cabins had leaves on the roof, as well as “minimal brush clearance.” The canyon was a full canopy, meaning trees covered the whole canyon and helped drop fire onto homes. The power lines presented overhead hazards, and the single narrow road into the canyon made for a difficult escape. The narrow walls of the canyon contained the scorching heat and lowered the humidity to less than 3 percent, Niccum adds. The conditions were so bad during the fire that even firefighters were forced out of the canyon. Niccum says a crew planned to do “structure aftercare,” which involves putting out hot spots once a fire roars through, but because of hazards such as landslides and dangling power lines, it was just too dangerous. The narrowness of the canyon also made communication between fire crews nearly impossible. “We didn’t feel we could safely commit our crews,” Niccum says. “Everything was stacked against us.”
Because of the severity of the Williams fire, a water-dropping helicopter continued making runs after dark that Monday night. Flying the helicopter in the dark is a rare occurrence, because of the extreme danger of limited nighttime visibility.
Niccum points out that many fire chiefs were called in to give statements because so many structures were lost. Pictures of the canyon taken during the fire showed just how bad the conditions were. This area “has some of the best wild land firefighters and structure protection specialists in the world,” says Niccum, but “we only have what we’re dealt. [Firefighting] is a huge commitment, and we don’t take it lightly. We put ourselves at risk to protect people and property.”
The presence of firefighters is evident in the rubble of San Dimas Canyon. Long pieces of worn fire hose lay in the dirt around many cabins. Niccum says firefighters only “cut lines” when they are forced to retreat, which is an indication of how bad the fire was. “I think [the firefighters] did everything they could in those circumstances,” Good says. “They put their lives in jeopardy to try to save people’s homes and waited until the last possible minute to get out and just barely got out with their own lives.” “They did a hell of a job. They really worked their tails off,” Brown agrees.
In addition to the property loss, the effects on the environment will be felt for quite some time. Dan Merritt, vice president of the La Verne Land Conservancy group and professor of zoology and environmental science at the University of La Verne, has been involved with local environmental issues for more than 30 years. He feels that it could be 25 to 50 years before the canyon will recover its original look.
The rainy season will play a large role in determining how long the recovery process will take. Adding rain to the already devastated canyon will cause even greater landslides that could potentially bury the homes that did not burn. According to Merritt, gentle rain will help new vegetation grow, but too much rain too soon could cause major erosion that will affect streambeds, reservoirs, animal habitats and potentially contaminate water farther downstream.
Many plants and animals adapt to survive fires, Merritt says, and some plants even thrive under the effects of a fire. However, in cases such as this, a fire can burn too hot over an extensive area and destroy entire communities of plants and animals. He says once grasses and flowering plants start to reappear, shrubs and small trees will gradually begin to grow, and, given time, the environment will eventually heal on its own. “Fire is a natural phenomenon,” Merritt says. Many ecologists recommend “small-scale prescribed burns” to reduce the accumulation of undergrowth. Failure to do this can result in the intense large-scale burning that took place in the Williams fire.
Back in the Canyon
After the fire, many San Dimas Canyon residents turned to Brown for help and direction in repairing their lives and the canyon they call home. “Those people elected me to do a job and look out for their interests. To the ability I can do it, I’m going to do it. You can sit around and whine about all the bad things that happened to you, but it doesn’t change it. So why not just try to focus on fixing it and get on with it,” Brown states.
Getting on with it is not as easy as it may seem. The U.S. Forest Service is unsure whether residents will be allowed to rebuild on their current lots due to environmental issues and building codes. If rebuilding is not possible, the Forest Service may relocate the residents to another area within the forest, but not necessarily within the same canyon. Unfortunately, this decision will not be made for months. Forest supervisor Jody Cook told residents at a meeting held at Foothill Vineyard Church shortly after the fire that the loss of this many cabins in a fire is “unprecedented.” “We need help and patience to get through this,” she says. Other U.S. Forest Service officials informed residents that they would consider their input on the issue of rebuilding. “We realize this is tragic and traumatic for everyone,” adds district ranger Marty Dumpis. “The Forest Service is trying to be more responsible, and it may not be to our liking,” Good says. “I think some of the things they have done are probably best for the environment.”
Merritt feels that building houses in the forest “forces a shift of the energy and resources of firefighters from protecting the forest and the watershed to protecting a few homes.” He does not favor rebuilding homes unless there is a “clear understanding that these sites would be maintained in a way compatible with fire management practices.” Niccum, on the other hand, says he would like to see the residents rebuild their homes. He recognizes that their lifestyle is special, and many of them “lost their heritage and treasures that can’t be replaced.” He too would like a better water system and more fire hazard reduction measures to take place. The U.S. Forest Service is left to decide whether this will be possible within this particular area of the canyon.
Regardless of the time frame, many residents already plan to rebuild, even if they cannot have their original lot back. “I don’t want to see a way of life that’s lasted for 75 years disappear,” Brown says. “I don’t want to see it end on my watch.” Kruger chose not to disconnect his phone or electric service to his burned down home. “If everyone quit, there would be no reason to set up new poles and wires. If you don’t try, you won’t succeed.”
In the mean time, residents are left to get on with their lives. Many displaced residents have found temporary places to stay, but they just do not feel like home. Brown was strongly hoping for government assistance in the weeks after the fire. At that time he felt that “everyone got up and made their speeches and went home. I honestly hope something comes of it. Most people are getting almost nothing.” Some help came at the end of October, nearly a month after the fire. The cities of San Dimas, La Verne and Glendora received emergency federal funding to repair hillsides and deal with mud slides. Small Business Administration loans were also available for those who qualified. Although the aid is helpful, many canyon residents are still left waiting to find out if they can rebuild.
“Sometimes you try to do everything right, and it comes out wrong. All you can do is try to do it right,” Brown reflects. “We’ll put it back together better than it was.”