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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : Pain and Hope Fill Survivor's Days

October 26, 1994|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Mass' appearance lays bare what he has endured.

The skin on his face is smoother now, no longer the charcoal black it was before the grafts or the blotchy red that followed. His arms are a donors' medley of white, pink and brown. And from a distance the bandage over his chest looks like a T-shirt.

The Nov. 2 brush fire that raged through Topanga Canyon seared 90% of his body. Since then, Mass has undergone a grueling medical regimen that first saved his life and now, step by agonizing step, is repairing the damage.

"I never knew things took this long to heal but they obviously do," he said, describing the last year as a pendulum of torture and sleep, bitterness and exhilaration, progress and setbacks.

His pain is almost constant, though its intensity varies, and he still suffers from a low-grade staph infection that opens tender flesh into seeping new wounds. Each day, a nurse comes over and helps him bathe and change his dressings, a four-hour procedure that requires painkillers.

He is well enough to eat out, go to the movies, drive, shop and cook for himself. He even rides his bike in the rugged hills surrounding his home. Yet in coming months he expects to be completely immobilized by a series of reconstructive surgeries on his hands--10 to 15 on each, including a whole new set of joints for one.

Mass, 41, says he looks forward to working again as a carpenter and getting a contractor's license, but dreads the pain the hand surgery and more grafting will bring.

One measure of what he has suffered are the root canals he recently had done because gritting his teeth in the hospital wore down their enamel and caused nerve damage.

"You'd think I'd be desensitized to pain but I'm not, I'm scared to death of pain," he said. "It will be hard to get me back on an operating table, I'm so fearful of it."

His release from the burn unit at Sherman Oaks Hospital and Health Center last April actually came sooner than doctors had planned, Mass said, because, after 33 skin grafts, he could not face another operation.

"I was losing my mind," he said. "They wanted to do more grafts but I was crying all the time and everything hurt. If you looked at me, I'd cry."

So the summer and fall have been spent at rest--watching videos and puttering around the sunny guest house he had built on the 12-acre ranch. It was the only structure on the property that survived the fire.

A tenant of Deer Creek Ranch for the last six years, Mass regards his landlords as family and had no qualms about returning to live at the site of the fire. With his double-wide trailer and their Santa Fe-style home destroyed, they now share the guest house that had been rented by screenwriter Duncan Gibbins, who was caught in the blaze with Mass but did not live.

Months of intensive psychotherapy have enabled Mass to talk about what happened. Every day he spent at the burn center, he met with a psychiatrist who forced him to describe the fire in as much detail as he could muster.

On the morning of Nov. 2, Mass had returned home for a forgotten saw when he smelled smoke; as it happened, Deer Creek Ranch is almost directly across from where the brush fire began, beneath two water towers off Old Topanga Canyon Road at the edge of Calabasas.

Gibbins was writing in the guest house as he always did, and the two of them began watering down the edge of the ranch. Since the fire was still across Old Topanga Canyon Road, they decided to check on their pets.

But in less than five minutes, Mass recalled, the fire jumped the winding, two-lane road and the hills surrounding them were aflame.

"Duncan was trying to get a script he was working on. I said, 'Forget about it. We need to go right now,' " Mass recalled. "I saw the fire on the roadway and I said, 'It will be tough, but we gotta leave.' "

They started up the long driveway--Mass in his Jeep, Gibbins in his Miata--confronted by a series of enormous flames. Mass made it through the first wall of fire and he saw Gibbins in his rearview mirror.

After making it through a second wall of fire, he noticed Gibbins was gone. Then he came to a third wall "and it was a big monster," Mass said. "I wasn't sure if I should go forward or reverse."

He drove forward, figuring that help would be closer there. Encapsuled in the enormous mass of flame, he heard his Jeep's tires explode and the engine cut off. Then it was eerily quiet and Mass, realizing he was on fire, ran toward his rescuers.

Soon afterward, emergency crews found the barely alive Gibbins floating in the swimming pool. Mass said it's not survivors guilt that he feels so much as that "it was a waste that he died."

Two others--88-year-old Donn Yarrow and his wife, Amy, 67, who were trapped in their truck in Carbon Canyon--died in the blaze, which consumed thousands of acres of brush and caused millions of dollars in structural damage.

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