by Rebecca Cooper Cote
photography by Amy Babin
It was a scene from an early 1900s era drama. With no phones, no way to get to the nearest hospital and no doctor for miles, Erica Henderson had no choice—she had to give birth to baby Abigail in her living room May 2003. Abigail was born just across the room from an old black cast iron stove that has tattooed little black burn marks on the maple colored wood floor. This is a house that her parents fought to save with every inch of their lives, and they do not regret a minute of it.
The Henderson family and the other residents of San Dimas Canyon have been beat up and battered by a year of flame, wind and floods. Residents have used generators to power appliances and wood-burning stoves to stay warm on bone-chilling nights. Only a year later was phone service restored. The dirt roads remain and now meander through streambeds, which have suffered severe flood damage.
On Sept. 22, 2002, the way of life in San Dimas Canyon changed forever. The serene community of hard working and eccentric people burned to the ground. For more than 60 owners, everything they owned, and memories from years’ past were reduced to ruins. More than a year later, residents are still dusting off the ashes, picking up the fragments and waiting on an uncertain future after the Williams Fire destruction.
Seared trees loom over the lots where more than 100 cabins once stood. Concrete slab foundations remain on each, as well as a brick or stone fireplace—the only part of the structure still standing on the scorched earth. Melted water bottles and unrecognizable aluminum cans lie scattered on most lots, alongside broken pieces of purple ceramic dishes. A melted pair of caramelized eyeglasses lies atop the altar of a charred mantle. “It ruined my life,” says Randy, a roofing contractor, who does not want his last name used. “I have not had a phone in more than a year, and I am self employed, so I haven’t had work in more than a year. Now they’re threatening to kick me out because I don’t have the money to pay land usage fees. My stairs are f——, because they washed away during the storms last year. I constantly have to carry water up the stairs because the pipes broke during the flooding.”
The San Dimas Canyon Improvement Association is responsible for providing water to residents. The city only provides electricity and phone services. During the flooding February 2003, the 8-inch black pipe carrying water to the more than 100 homes and cabins burst. The Association does not have enough money to rebuild the pipes. Only 14 homes remain in the Canyon, and some residents can no longer afford Association dues because of the financial stress placed on them by disaster. The 38,000 acre fire caused an estimated $15.3 million of destruction.
“We had no insurance, and this is the only place we have to live,” says Erica Henderson while she plays with bubbly 5-month-old Abigail. “We found out about the fire at the end of the first day and just decided to go back to bed and see what happened. Then we woke up the next morning, and the officials were trying to get us to leave, but we checked the laws on the internet and realized that they couldn’t force us to evacuate because of a fire.” Henderson and her husband Brian worked for more than five hours clearing a fire break around the perimeter of the house in the West Fork of San Dimas Canyon. Brian was a volunteer firefighter during the 1994 Kinneloa Canyon Fire north of Pasadena, so the couple was prepared with rakes, masks and the knowledge needed to protect their house. And then the fire came. “It was so smoky that you could hardly breathe, even with a mask on,” Erica Henderson remembers. “After we cleared everything back in the more than 110 degree heat, we rushed inside, and my husband told me the fire was about to come overhead. We just stood in the middle of the house and suddenly this really bright and hot 200 foot high flame roared over head like a huge pack of lions.”
“Everyone kept telling us we had a death wish, but if we had not stayed, then we wouldn’t have anything to show for it,” Erica Henderson says. After the fire roared past their house, the Hendersons went back to work for more than eight hours, but this time it was to clear trees and debris that caught fire near their house and their neighbor Charlie. With the Henderson’s help, his house is still standing. “The houses don’t go up in the firestorm,” Erica Henderson says. “The house only catches fire if trees and debris that are burning hit the house. My one neighbor said ‘let it burn,’ because she had insurance. We watched a tree fall on her old outhouse where she stored paints, spirits and mineral oils and everything on her property was charred within minutes. Most people didn’t have insurance, because the state raised the rates the year before from $1,000 to $3,000 and most of us couldn’t afford it. ”
Harold Jackson, a Veterans Administration employee who grew up in San Dimas Canyon and lives about a half mile deeper in the Canyon than the Hendersons, also opted to stick out the fire. He made a 20-foot clearance around his property as he waited for the fire to pass his brown house that proudly displays the American flag. Once the fire passed over at about 5 p.m., the marathon began. Jackson worked until past midnight to keep the rolling embers away from his house and his neighbors. He also had to move red-hot molten rocks that were rolling down the hill and melting plastic. “My neighbor abandoned his house about two years ago, but I knew that if it went up, so would mine,” Jackson said. “I hardly used any water, just a shovel and a rock rake, and I kept a wet towel around my neck just in case. The county fire officials were up here when the fire first started, but once the flames came, they took off. They told us that our houses would be cared for, but after working for the government for 40 years, I know how the government works—it was up to me to save my house. A fire battalion chief came back later and asked what I did and what they can do next time.” Jackson says he feels no bitterness and will continue to live in San Dimas Canyon until he retires. He continues to make improvements to his house and still commutes 100 miles round trip to work at the Veterans Hospital in Santa Monica. “People have lived here a long time, and no one is just walking away,” Jackson says. “It was a nightmare, but I’ve gotten over that. I’ll continue to live here until they kick me out. We’re just waiting for the Forest Service to decide if they’ll let us stay. They said they would make a decision in June, and then they pushed it back to September and now they say December. If they decide we can’t live here any more, then I’ll just move to Arizona where the rest of my family is.”
The Forest Service is conducting an Environmental Assessment of San Dimas Canyon to see whether residents should be able to stay in the Canyon. They are accepting public comment and must respond to each comment before they make a decision by March 2004. Canyon residents receive 20 year recreational use permits from the Forest Service under current regulations. Each year, residents pay $175 to $400 in land usage fees that go into the general treasury, not to the Forest Service. The permits are scheduled to expire in December 2008. These homes, also known as red cabins, are meant to be vacation or second homes. “Many permittees violated these permits by residing in their San Dimas Canyon homes year-round, even though they were not meant as permanent residences” said District Ranger Marty Dumpis.
Four alternatives are under consideration, but regardless of the determination, all rebuilt and existing cabins will have to meet Los Angeles County fire, building, sanitary, septic and potable water system codes. The first three alternatives differ in the rebuilding allowed: all the cabins would be reconstructed, some or none of them. The Forest Service would renew the permits of all extant cabin owners and rebuild the roads at cost to the residents. Reconstruction of the roads to Los Angeles County fire and safety standards would cost $3.1 million for the Main Fork and $1.5 million for the West Fork.
“We offered help, but most residents just ignored us. Quite a few people just walked away and left everything,” Dumpis says. “We had lots of complaints from residents, and some of the people who complained the most could not be found when it came time to clean up. We removed 30 burned vehicles, drums of waste barrels, burned cabins and so much other debris. There are still propane tanks just laying around or are buried that we still need to remove because they were just abandoned.”
Alternative four is to phase out all tracts, essentially ending the community. Existing cabins would be given 10 years of use from the date of decision or could be sold to the government. Remaining homes would still need to comply with county regulations, and residents would pay for rebuilding the roads. After 10 years, San Dimas Canyon would return to alternative public use as determined by additional surveys.
Diane Alarcon works for Los Angeles County Recreation Services at the San Dimas Canyon Nature Center. Alarcon was hiking deep in San Dimas Canyon, teaching a newcomer to the Nature Center how to track animals early September 2002. She saw a white plume of smoke and became suspicious about the cause of the cloud. “It looked almost like a rain cloud, but I worried it was from a fire so I came down the mountain just in case,” Alarcon says. “I’m so glad that I came out. The next morning, I came into work, and the fire had traveled so close. We had to evacuate all the animals and find temporary homes for them.”
Alarcon helped load the deer, horses and other animals into trucks and decided to take home the birds. She tried to get them used to residential life, but the birds refused to eat for four days until she returned them to the familiarity of the Nature Center. “This fire came a little too close and got a little too hot for me,” Alarcon says. “I used to see a bear or its tracks everyday, but I have not seen it since the fire. Many of the animals were pushed deeper into the canyons and have not come out since. We released a lot of hawks into the canyon to help get things back to normal. The fire changed everything.”
Before the Williams Fire twisted its way through the foothills, San Dimas Canyon was a stark contrast of beauty and defilement. Colossal pine and oak trees, beautiful orange and yellow flowers and green vine covered hills covered the canyon. A tranquil stream weaved through, choked with crushed Bud Light and half-full Coca Cola aluminum cans, soiled baby diapers and plastic bottles. Graffiti-plastered boulders greeted hikers who entered the canyon looking for the idyllic beauty of wild Southern California. “Maybe in the next 10 years, we’ll have some nice trees growing back,” says resident Ryan Dickerson, 21, as he picks up a rusted steel rod and a silver beer can left by visitors. “The Canyon has a natural beauty that was even here during the fire. I remember waking up at 6 a.m. when the Sheriffs came to warn us about the fire. It was already coming down the mountain, and everything was black and looked like a cemetery out of a scary movie. There were stick-figure trees that still look so sad. It will never be the same.” Old carpet sits on one concrete foundation, and two small mobile homes sit uninhabited on another slab foundation. A sheet of glass melted into a perfect spiral from the fire sits like modern art on another lot. Green and blue propane tanks, including “Rod Cafe Propane Tank Mt. Baldy” provide the only color on most lots. Each tank features bright red letters reading “FLAMMABLE.”
Days after the fire was contained, the residents of San Dimas Canyon faced another natural disaster—wind storms. Many of the homes that were still standing fell or lost windows as debris left from the fire whipped through the air. “The windstorms were harder on me than the fire,” Erica Henderson says. “It broke all the windows on one side of our house, and we had ash, pieces of people’s homes, pieces of trees and other debris all over. My husband is asthmatic, and I was pregnant, so we finally decided to see what the Red Cross could do for us. All we really got from them were shovels, soda and water, and then we headed back home to clear the six inch thick layer of soot that covered everything we owned.”
Then came the winter floods. Flash floods and mudslides often follow fires because the soil, trees and debris are unsteady. San Dimas Canyon usually gets 10 to 12 inches of rain in February, but in February 2003, Canyon residents endured the beating of more than 30 inches of rain in just three days. Mud buried Ryan Dickerson’s blue Honda Accord, and he had to get help to pull it free. Harold Jackson could not open his house doors because more than two tons of debris needed to be cleared from his porch. Rushing water flipped over some cars. Pieces of homes, tires and remains of charred earth rushed by in the deluge. The floods knocked down some structures that had endured the fires and left four feet of soot, raising the creek bed in the West and Main forks by more than 4 feet.
“The floods were scarier and more traumatic than the fire or the windstorms,” Erica Henderson says. “No one was allowed back in for four days. We had just bought a big truck that could get through the mess left behind by the mudslides, so we were some of the first people back in. We started a taxi service for our neighbors and took them where they needed to go. This past year has been real tough, but at least we still have our house and baby Abigail to show for it.”