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Living With Nature's Fury, Beauty : Carlisle Canyon: For the handful of residents, occasional calamities can't offset the area's solitude and tranquillity.

NEIGHBORHOODS. One in an occasional series.

January 22, 1995|MATTHEW MOSK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elephants were walking down Carlisle Road in broad daylight last week and no one even stopped to look.

That's because deep in the jungle that is Carlisle Canyon, a remote neighborhood near Thousand Oaks where a handful of free spirits have moved to escape the racket of city life, there are few surprises.

Those that live along the narrow dirt road that curls through the canyon say they have seen enough in the past two years that a few elephants from the nearby Animal Actors ranch can't faze them.

They came within feet of a raging firestorm, they endured rockslides during the Northridge earthquake, and they were trapped in their homes for three days during the recent flood.

And still, they insist that the overpowering beauty and solitude of this hidden community, with its free-running gullies, its wild rock formations and its majestic oak trees, make tolerable a little calamity from time to time.

"Come here at night and listen to the animals, or look up at the stars," said longtime resident Sylvia Pollak. "Sure we pay a price, but there are times when it becomes very clear that staying here is worth it."

Carlisle Canyon has drawn a former Los Angeles police officer and wealthy antique dealers, aging retirees and trust-fund teens, some living in $19,000 trailers and others in million-dollar mansions.

Despite diverse backgrounds, the residents uniformly agree that the allure of the neighborhood is the solitude offered by large lots and secluded hillside homes.

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Some chose to live along the narrow Carlisle Road, the only route in and out of the winding canyon, because they enjoy firing guns into the hills or because they grew up in rural lifestyle. Others use their territory to raise and train exotic animals of all kinds, including lions, bears, snakes, alligators, wolves, tigers, pigs and elephants.

For all the residents, the one-two punch of fire and flood that came after years of peace and tranquillity was a stark reminder of the price of living in the wilderness.

Everywhere around the canyon there is evidence of the 1993 Green Meadow fire which hit the brush-covered community in a wave of flame, destroying part of a home and two trailers.

Shortly before the blaze, internal Fire Department reports warned that Carlisle Canyon was due for destruction because dry chaparral and thick shrubbery had flourished, untouched by flames for more than 30 years.

The concerns were justified.

Ron Cole, a resident since 1967, stayed with his house and a crew of firefighters on Oct. 27, 1993, the day the Green Meadow blaze bore down on Carlisle Canyon.

"I've seen lots of fires in my life, but this was a whole different experience," Cole said. "The fire came over the ridge and down the hillside across from my house in about 15 seconds. It sounded like three F-16s roaring right over your head, and the heat, even from 100 feet away, was enough to burn your face off."

Aluminum cans on Cole's front porch melted. The grass around his house was incinerated. He was terrified.

"It was like the whole canyon had been soaked with gasoline," he said. "That's how fierce it burned."

Fire crews were stationed at every house. Four firefighters from Pasadena drenched Cole's house with water, draining 5,600 gallons from his 6,000-gallon back-yard tank in one day.

Ventura County Fire Capt. Robby Werner, a 30-year veteran who has covered the Carlisle Canyon area for the past five years, said most residents were fortunate to have escaped the blaze with their homes.

"That area is extreme in terms of the fire hazards," Werner said. "If those residents had not cleared brush back away from their houses, there probably wouldn't be a house left standing."

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For weeks after the fires, longtime resident Vera House recalls the neighborhood being thick with the odor of destruction.

"It looked like hell," she said. "But the smell was the worst. Like an acrid garbage dump with smoldering fires still burning all across the blackened hillside."

As bad as the fire was--and it burned right up to her front porch--House said she was more frightened by the recent floods, which sent water and mud across the porch, right up to her front door.

"The rains, I think, were worse because you can fight a fire," House said. "You can't fight a flood."

Waters from the January rainstorms pounded the canyon's steep, scorched hillsides, releasing piles of mud into residents' yards and into some homes.

A giant boulder fell onto tiny, one-lane Carlisle Road, trapping residents in the canyon for days before a fire crew could push the three-ton rock to the shoulder.

"I've said a lot of prayers this week," said Pollak, whose husband had to hire a bulldozer crew to clear mud from sections of their steep, 900-foot driveway.

"Every time I head down our driveway I pray I won't slide off the side of the mountain," she said. "I feel like, given all that's happened in the last two years, maybe we're being tested."

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