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Nature's Latest Puts Modjeska Up a Tree

Weather: Fire, flood . . . and now a rain-sodden oak blocks canyon's only exit.

March 14, 1998|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MODJESKA — When you wake up, realize you're out of coffee, then learn a giant tree has fallen in the predawn darkness, blocking the only road out to fast-food restaurants, the conclusion is inescapable: It must be Friday the 13th.

They've seen fire and they've seen rain, and Friday, the hardy souls of this backwoods canyon suffered yet another day of natural disaster and bad humor after a 200-year-old live oak slam-dunked a 2-ton piece of its trunk onto power and phone lines, then right into the middle of Modjeska Canyon Road.

The words "on time" were instantly deleted from the vocabulary of the estimated 300 residents here, which was a problem for Christi Duda, a UPS delivery supervisor who moved in a month ago.

"This is a very big day. We just started a major account with IBM, and I'm supposed to be getting all the packages to the counter," she said. Out the door at 5 a.m., she was one of the first blocked by the road closure.

To top it off, half the canyon seemed to be out of coffee, including the volunteer firehouse. It's been a heavy few weeks of sipping brewed beverages and chatting with the neighbors while marveling at nature's fury, and Friday's early morning wake-up call was a tough one for those with no caffeine on hand.

"I was going to get some on the way in last night, and I just forgot. I'm drinking tea," said Bill Fink with disgust. Other than the country store, which doesn't open until 9 a.m., the nearest grocery store is normally 11 miles away. On Friday morning, it was a full day's hike over the mountains to the south.

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More fortunate members of the community rallied to the rescue, bringing china teapots full of coffee and even plastic Baggies of ground beans to the needy.

"This is how our community gets together," said Joyce Ryckman, who has lived here 21 years. "We had the fire on the hill by us last summer, and everyone stood around chatting while we watched. Then the rains came two weeks ago Monday; we stood around and chatted. And now, yep, there's a tree in the middle of the road! It's a good chance to catch up."

Of course, not everyone chatted. The volunteer firefighters were out of bed at 4:50 a.m. Ken Ross, one of the first at the scene when he tried to drive to his job at a Santa Ana dairy, turned around and called station captain Bruce Newell at home. The air raid siren atop the firehouse split the air minutes later, rivaling the full-throated roosters that normally shriek out a canyon good morning.

Within minutes, a full crew approached the downed specimen cautiously.

"There was tree to the left of us, there was tree to the right of us, there was tree all around," said Marc Gossan, spoofing nightmarish fire rescues in which he and others have indeed gone through walls of flame. They determined a large piece of the tree had fallen because it was old and full of rainwater from February's heavy storms.

"A big ol' piece just fell right off," said firefighter Brian Frick. "It was all sopping wet inside."

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The firefighters removed as many limbs as they could, then stood waiting, along with half the canyon's residents, for Pacific Bell phone company representatives to show up, because phone lines were under the tree. But because the wires had not been cut but merely pinioned, the company did not consider it an emergency, a firefighter said. Finally, heavy-duty trucks brought in by Edison Co. to fix one of its wires hauled the massive tangle of branches and lumber off the lines onto the road shortly before 9 a.m. Pacific Bell crews eventually did appear.

"Edison saved our butts this morning," said Newell, who revved a chain saw to cut through the trunk. This being a friendly rural community, there was immediate commentary on his performance.

"Why don't you get the damned blades sharpened so we can get out of here?" Jerry Fenn hollered.

Most people had no problem convincing their bosses that there had indeed been trouble, once again, in the canyon.

One woman took a Polaroid photo of the tree, scanned it and sent it via e-mail to her supervisor after he doubted her tale.

"I'm going more low-tech," Dave Silberfarb said. "I'm going to bring in a chunk of the tree and put it on my boss' desk."

Tom Hamilton had joked to his co-workers Thursday night that he wouldn't be back until they got sugar for the office coffee. When he didn't show up Friday, they paged him: "We Have Sugar."

At 9:24, the road was opened. Duda of UPS was the first one out. "Yea! Yea!" she yelled jubilantly as she whizzed by.

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