Jumping from tree to tree and from hilltop to hilltop, a devastating fire fanned by Santa Ana winds scorched more than half of the 575 acres in Elysian Park 3 1/2 years ago.
The results of that fire can still be seen in the blackened trunks of palm trees and the skeletal remains of some pines.
More important, however, may be another, albeit invisible, legacy of the blaze: a continuing debate over how much of the northeast Los Angeles park should be irrigated to prevent another big fire.
About 15% of the park, mainly lawns and picnic areas, has sprinkler systems, park employees say. But many of those systems are antiquated and decayed, requiring time-consuming operation and maintenance.
The rest of the park, mostly steep hillside terrain, has no water supplies except for roadside fire hydrants that are used only during fires.
A citizens committee and some park employees are advocating that sprinkler systems be installed throughout the park.
"It needs it badly," said Grace Simons, president emeritus of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, a group that has tangled with municipal officials on many issues over the years.
Simons, whose efforts on behalf of the park led to the naming of a new park lodge in her honor, believes that not enough money is being requested to make the improvements that are needed.
Officials with the city Department of Recreation and Parks say they are optimistic that $500,000 for modern, automated sprinklers in Elysian Park will be coming later this year from a recent state bond issue. That money would be used mainly to replace sprinkler systems in the heavily used lawn and recreation areas west of Stadium Way.
They also expect another $30,000 in city funds to develop irrigation and recreation plans for the Solano Canyon area on the park's eastern side.
Simons, whose organization has lobbied strongly for more irrigation funds, called those budget requests "pitiful" in light of a master plan for the park that 12 years ago said full irrigation would cost $5 million.
Joel Breitbart, the department's assistant general manager in charge of planning and development, responded: "Mrs. Simons and her group have the luxury of concerning themselves with one park. We have 300 parks and every single park has needs. We are constantly balancing the needs of one park against the other. That's what you have to do when there are only so many dollars available."
Elysian Park 'Neglected'
Simons concedes that the department has to struggle with limited funds. But she said the current budget "overlooks the fact that we don't have that many large parks, and not that many have been so neglected as Elysian Park has been over the years and have had such a devastating fire."
Since the fire, city workers and volunteers have worked to replant the burned areas and tens of thousands of feet of new pipes for sprinklers have been installed in recreation areas, officials say.
But almost everyone agrees that much more work needs to be done. "The park is very old and its utilities are shot," said Dick Ginevan, regional chief park supervisor.
Park workers say they constantly have to patch sprinkler lines, and one of the main underground pipelines from a 500,000-gallon water tank on top of Bishop Canyon is now virtually useless. The tank, hooked up by a pump to the municipal system, is the only water source for the entire park, including its fire hydrants.
Ginevan said most of the sprinklers must be turned on manually and can be used only during the day, when maintenance workers are on duty. As a result, lawns are sometimes off-limits to the public during day hours. "That is very inefficient, both in manpower and water (usage)," Ginevan said. New, automated sprinklers connected to timers could be used at night, saving manpower and eliminating daytime water evaporation.
Ginevan said the department is stressing the need for new sprinkler systems in its application for bond money. "Irrigation is not as sexy as putting in swing sets or ball diamonds," he said. "But how long can we keep a park together if the utilities have gone to hell. That park has been really deteriorating for lack of capital."
The requested $500,000 could replace sprinklers on "30 or 40 acres depending on the bids and how hungry the contractors are," he said.
Ginevan, however, said he would not want automated sprinklers installed throughout the park, even if more money were available. Although many non-native plants and trees were planted in the park in the 1930s and 1940s, the emphasis now is to allow the native chaparral, which can survive in dry climates, to thrive in most places except for lawns and the arboretum along Stadium Way. "We don't want sprinklers in the hills to encourage weeds. All that would do is create a fire danger," Ginevan said.
Ken Wichmann, senior park foreman for the region, disagrees. He thinks the return to chaparral is a wise move but adds, "That is not to say it should not be irrigated." The chaparral, Wichmann said, has a high oil content and can burn freely if it is dry enough. "The entire park should be irrigated," although not necessarily constantly, he said. "You'll have a much better looking park if it is all irrigated."
During the 1981 fire, the areas that had been irrigated escaped heavy damage. Since then, the park has suffered several small fires. "We were very fortunate. Either the fires were in areas that didn't burn well or we had water available to contain it," recalled Steve Carleton, park maintenance supervisor.