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High on Hills : Despite Hazards of Fire, Rain and Mudslides, Homeowners Are Sold on Privacy, Rural Feel of Hillside Living

March 28, 1993|CAROL TICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tice is a free-lance writer who lives in the flatlands of Culver City.

When the fireball raced down the hill behind Sandy and Doug Schultz's Glendale home, Schultz was on the roof in wet jeans with a hose in his hand. It was the afternoon of June 27, 1990, and a brush fire that had been consuming the hills around Glendale College was headed straight for him.

"I wasn't even frightened--there wasn't time," he recalled. "It was like being in a tornado. Yucca plants were exploding, ash was falling and it was about 113 degrees out."

In a rush of wind, the fire roared past, narrowly missing the house. Schultz noticed the wood shingles beneath his steel roof tiles had ignited. He rushed inside the house, where smoke was wafting out of the ceiling fixtures and air vents. Grabbing a tin box of important papers, he raced outside, crossing the street just in time to turn and see the house explode into flame.

Dazed, he discovered he still had his cellular car phone in his back pocket. He called Sandy, who was fighting rush hour traffic from San Pedro, to tell her not to hurry. "She was screaming," he said, "and I told her not to get in an accident."

Sifting through the debris a few days later with the help of friends, the Schultzes managed to recover a few keepsakes: scorched wedding pictures, a fire-tanned ceramic bulldog salt shaker that had belonged to Sandy Schultz's mother. "I had all my family heirlooms because all my family had died," she said sadly. "The fire was like losing them all at once all over again."

More than 40 homes in the area were destroyed. After losing nearly everything but their cars and the clothes on their backs, you might think the Schultzes would have moved away to somewhere safer, flatter--outside of a brush fire area, at least.

You'd be wrong.

You see, the Schultzes love living in the hills. "When you come out here, it's like you're in the country," Sandy Shultz, an Oregon native, said.

So the Schultzes built their dream house on their charred lot, going from 2,500 to 3,700 square feet and adding every modern convenience. They moved into their new home, which features cement roof tiles and no exposed wood, in late October, 1992.

"I prefer to live up here because there's a certain peace and tranquillity up in the hills," Doug Schultz said. "We're going to be here a while."

Despite the hazards of living in L.A.'s mountainous areas, there's a special breed of Angeleno who just wouldn't live anywhere else. There are frequent reminders of hillside perils--most recently, February's heavy rains and the resulting mudslides--but these lovers of natural scenery simply fortify their homes, hope for the best and rebuild when necessary.

Jason Saleeby, a Caltech professor of geology, ticked off a list of potential problems awaiting mountain home buyers. In the San Gabriel Mountains, Saleeby explained, "the bedrock is highly fractured and weathered--it's decomposing before your eyes. There's a major thrust fault beneath the range, and a 6.0 magnitude earthquake is not unlikely. There are brush fire hazards when the Santa Ana winds blow. You can get a lot of damage in the canyons just from high winds, too. There's always potential for floods and related debris flows during large winter storms."

So where does Saleeby live? At the very top of a hill in Sierra Madre.

"I really like this area," he said. "And I have a contingency plan of how to rebuild my house if anything happens. I'd rather live with the risks up here than with the smog down in Pasadena."

*

Sylvia Gross, the 79-year-old owner of a tiny four-room Tujunga home, agrees. "I never did like living in the city," she said. Her house is hidden at the end of a winding dirt road, with deep canyons on two sides and a steep hillside in back. The $21,500 home she and her late husband, Calvin, bought in 1973 has narrowly escaped both fire and mudslide.

The fire came in 1975, roaring out of La Crescenta a few days before Thanksgiving. Calvin Gross was driving his wife back from the hospital--Sylvia had just had surgery on her left arm--when they spotted ominous black clouds over their canyon.

When they got home, Calvin descended into the canyon while Sylvia hosed down the roof with her good arm. "It was like being in the jaws of hell," Gross recalled. "White ash was falling like a snowstorm. We were surrounded by fire on two ridges. But I never was one to run away from trouble."

Despite pleas from fire officials to evacuate, the Grosses stayed. The fire moved off, and their house was spared.

The next time, it would take 100 Mennonites to save them. In March and April, 1978, the area was hit with heavy rains. "I saw a slide come down and cover three cars in a flash, " Gross recalled. As the hillside behind their house became saturated, a 15-foot-thick slab of earth began to slide--right toward the back door.

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