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Fight or Flight for Holy Jim Dwellers

February 24, 1998|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST — They've been through this drill before.

With raging creek waters washing out their only exit road and the threat of more rain to come, seven adults, one child and four dogs were airlifted Monday from their remote homes in Holy Jim Canyon.

Between sips of coffee at a Rancho Santa Margarita fire station where he and other evacuees were taken, Steve Hansel rattled off the first names of another half-dozen fellow canyon dwellers who refused to leave, including a woman in failing health.

"We pumped up her water tank and checked out her generator before we left," explained Hansel, a canyon resident for the past 18 years, who said looking out for one's neighbors is commonplace in such an isolated area.

Despite spending Sunday working to keep Holy Jim and Trabuco creeks from swelling and swamping their cabin homes, most residents took evacuation with a casualness stemming from years of dealing with fires, flood and freak accidents on their own.

In Holy Jim Canyon, there are no outside phones or power lines. The Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department handles most emergencies, using an 800-megahertz radio to call for outside help. And on Monday, most residents took it all in stride.

"I'm concerned for my property, but I believe we've got all of our families and animals taken care of, and that's the important thing," said Holy Jim resident and evacuee David Neiderhaus.

An estimated 14 inches of rain was dumped onto nearby Santiago Peak over the weekend. In Holy Jim Canyon, cars sank in the mud and residents estimate that nearby Trabuco Creek Road--the only way out--was swallowed by more than three feet of water.

So residents promptly got to work. Cabin owners sandbagged feverishly. Hansel fired up an old tractor and shoveled mounds of dirt to divert the waters away from cabins.

Monday morning, fire authorities landed a helicopter nearby and gathered about 17 residents to discuss a voluntary evacuation.

"We strongly encouraged them to take advantage of the evacuation," said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Scott Brown. "The ground is super-saturated and we're very concerned" about the potential of mudslides.

Those who decided to leave first drove trucks filled with precious belongings to high ground for safekeeping. Then they clambered into an old Huey helicopter.

Holy Jim Canyon is about five miles from Rancho Santa Margarita, but the windy canyon road--which crosses over creek beds in six places--that connects the two communities takes about half an hour to travel.

Nestled in the federally owned Cleveland National Forest, the community comprises about 50 cabins. Residents estimate that 80% are occupied by people who drive up on weekends. The rest are full-timers. "We're a nice, friendly community," said Hansel, who is a member of the volunteer fire department and lives in Bellflower during the week. "We watch out for each other out here. You pretty much have to."

Creek flooding also required several residents to be evacuated by helicopter last year.

"They landed us by Pavilions" grocery store in Rancho Santa Margarita, said part-time canyon resident Kevin Jordan. "I bought about $200 in food and beer. When they took us back later on, we had a party."

Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Tina Nguyen.

Frank Messina can be reached at (714) 248-2150. His e-mail address is frank.messina@latimes.com

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