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California and the West

Hardy Town Hangs Tough Amid Fire

Character: Many fiercely independent mountain dwellers defied a U.S. evacuation order as blaze approached. 'We're set in our ways up here,' one says.

August 03, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KENNEDY MEADOWS, Calif. — Up here in this mountain hamlet, it often seems that what shouldn't be exciting is, and what should be exciting isn't.

So it was with wide eyes and high hopes that the crowd at Grumpy Bear's Tavern watched Jan Gant dial the first phone call in the history of Kennedy Meadows. The year: 1999, 123 years after the invention of the telephone.

Conversely, in recent days, as the most ferocious forest fire in the recorded history of the Sequoia National Forest licked at the edges of town, Kennedy Meadows residents greeted the blaze with a shrug.

Forestry officials officially lifted their "mandatory" evacuation order Wednesday morning. Unofficially, they concede, as many as half of the town's 70 full-time residents simply ignored it, choosing instead to stay behind and beat back the latest assault on their rugged, independent lives.

"I didn't want to start over again, not at this stage of my life," said a defiant Ed Duff, 60, a retiree who rode out the fire at his home on nearby Chimney Peak. "And that's how it is up here. You play the hand you get."

Duff, worried about his home, his rifles and his family photos, had a hose positioned on the roof. Like many of his neighbors in the remote village, he was prepared to battle the blaze himself if it came to that.

By Wednesday evening, as the fire completed its 12th day, it had consumed 72,228 acres of pinyon pines, sagebrush and junipers, leaving the jagged peaks so burnt that from a distance some looked as if they had been paved. The blaze had claimed eight homes, an artist's workshop and a Boy Scout camp. It had melted stained-glass windows, exploded propane tanks and burned the seat right out of a tractor.

But it did not reach Duff's house. Not quite. Not this time.

Despite the belated introduction of the telephone, there is no electricity here, nor a water system. Residents use generators and buy tanks of propane to run refrigerators and stoves. There is one paved road. There are no traffic lights or street signs. Most residents build their own homes. There is one restaurant--Grumpy's--and two stores.

Dubbed the Manter fire, the Sequoia blaze began July 22. High humidity helped control it Tuesday and Wednesday, officials said, but it was still just 40% contained Wednesday night. Officials expect to control the fire by Aug. 10.

Meanwhile, four firefighters were burned Wednesday in a western Riverside County blaze. The four were battling the fire near Temecula when a thunderstorm whipped flames into an inferno. Two of the men were reported in serious condition and the other two in fair condition.

Sequoia-area residents praised the heroic efforts of 1,700 firefighters there who are working 16-hour days.

"You faced the flames and won," read a poem one resident left in the nearby command center. "You've left your own homes, your comforts and those you love to fight this fire for strangers."

But, despite the praise, some residents blamed the severity of the fire on the federal government. The government, they said, made a poor decision to establish the Dome Land Wilderness Area west of their homes. The designation prevents road-building in the Dome Land--which meant fire crews had limited access to populated areas.

"There is a lot of mistrust and animosity toward the government," said Carl Maass, a U.S. Forest Service official who runs the Cannell Meadow and Greenhorn ranger districts on the south side of Sequoia National Forest. "They want to be self-sufficient. And the reality is, there aren't very many places left where you can do that anymore. You are not going to mistake this place for Big Bear or Mammoth."

The atmosphere meant that many residents ignored the evacuation order, which came last Thursday, three days before the blaze overran Kennedy Meadows.

The government, Maass said, has the right to call for mandatory evacuations, but there is a catch. If a homeowner appears sane and healthy, the government cannot physically remove a person from the house. So if they insist on staying, even if it's unsafe, there is little authorities can do.

"We're stubborn," said Vern Fava, an eight-year Kennedy Meadows resident, whose home was leveled by the blaze. Fava was trapped down the mountain, in Ridgecrest, when the flames advanced on Kennedy Meadows. Because he wasn't in town, the evacuation order prevented him from getting to the remnants of his property until Wednesday morning.

"Once they get you out they won't let you back in," he said. "So a lot of people wouldn't leave. We're set in our ways up here."

Lisa and Charlie Rains were also trapped outside of the community when the fire began, and couldn't get back in until Wednesday morning. They spent days fretting about their family's log cabin, built by Lisa Rains' grandfather in 1920.

As soon as the evacuation order was lifted, they arrived to find that the blaze had claimed a nearby mountain peak and the meadow adjacent to the cabin. But the cabin itself was untouched.

"Thinking of losing this place is like thinking of losing a relative," said Lisa Rains, who spent summers in the cabin as a child.

The blaze seems cruelly inconsistent, stripping one mountainside of vegetation and structures, and leaving an adjacent hilltop unscathed. At one site, a garden of rhubarb, fruit trees and flowers was untouched. The home next to it was destroyed.

It will be years before the mountainside looks as it did before the blaze. Officials are expected new seedlings to break the soil in coming months, but most of those will be pinyon pines, which are notoriously slow-growing.

"The trees were awful thick, and just waiting for this to happen," said George Powers, 45, whose family has been in the area since the 1850s. "But the landscape is gone, and that's what hurts the most. Now it's just ash and wind."

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