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Orange County

Readiness Is the Canyon Way

People: 'We're our own best, first line of defense,' resident says. Everyone knows where the water is.


The men of Holy Jim and Trabuco canyons--and they are mostly men, heavily bearded and favoring flannel shirts and sturdy work boots--know where every drop of water is on the hillsides and in the creek beds around them.

"You have to be ready," said Frank Romero, who has 2,500 gallons of water in a spring-fed cistern in front of the cabin he has co-owned for 10 years here, ready for blazes like the one that erupted Wednesday night.

In this rustic world just five miles from the sprawling red-tile rooftops of south Orange County, fire and flood are constant perils bookending an otherwise utterly tranquil existence. Knowing where the water is--in natural springs, wells, water tanks and the like--is essential for survival.

People here live literally on the edge, in wood and creek stone cabins tucked in the Cleveland National Forest without electricity, sewage, plumbing or other modern conveniences. They like it that way. Nature is not conquered here; at best it is held at bay.

"Electricity? Nah, what do you need that for?" said a man, 59, who goes simply by Shannon, with a full snowy beard and a ponytail down his back, who has owned a Holy Jim cabin for more than 28 years.

Holy Jim is loosely named after "Lyin'" or "Cussin'" Jim Smith, who lived in a now-gone cabin in this storied area of the Santa Ana Mountains in the early 1900s. "Every time he appeared in town, every other word out of his mouth was a cussword," Shannon said. But when the canyon was formally named, neither Lyin' nor Cussin' Jim Canyon sounded quite right, so it became Holy Jim.

Today's denizens, most of whom are self-employed as contractors, auto repairmen, gardeners or other types of handymen, were grinning with relief and pleasure in front of Trabuco General Store on Thursday morning after a long night on the mountain.

"It was a massive fire," said Steve Hansel, 63, who has owned his cabin for 29 years. "It burned down to within 10 feet of my solar panel out back."

Sheriff's deputies and U.S. Forest Service rangers tried to evacuate all the residents at least twice during the night, but many simply melted into the darkness, then popped back up at their cabins.

"We're our own best, first line of defense," said Mike Horna, 48, of Anaheim, who like many owns a cabin in the canyon that he gets away to every chance he can.

All night Wednesday, they kept an eye on the sprinklers, water pumps, hoses, cisterns and other hand-rigged defenses they had mounted well in advance of this week's blaze.

"It was like the Everglades out here--everything was wet," chortled Kevin Jordan, 47, who has owned one of the larger, newer cabins for 10 years.

Jordan, like many of the other 100 or so residents, raced up to the cabins after hearing news reports or receiving phone calls from friends on cell phones.

As walls of flame raced along the ridge above them, and at one point in Trabuco Creek below, they went door to door, evacuating those who wanted to go. They gently rounded up Betty Somes, an elderly woman with one leg who uses an oxygen machine. She was in her cabin reading.

Cats, dogs and pet birds were all secured. Propane tanks, which can explode like missiles in a fire, were shut off.

"When something happens here, everybody shows up. It's an old-fashioned community," Shannon said.

Those who wanted to leave were escorted down the 5 1/2-mile rutted road that meanders near Trabuco Creek through stands of sycamore and live oak.

Behind them, flames were racing up the ridge between the two canyons.

Some gathered at the forest-green fire station that houses two aging fire engines and serves as the headquarters for a volunteer fire corps. Others began laying out hose near the "forks," the confluence of Holy Jim and Trabuco creeks where there is a deep pool of water year-round.

As professional firefighters from Station 16 in nearby Modjeska Canyon and elsewhere arrived, the residents directed them to huge wooden water tanks they have built in the woods, which they regularly top off by pumping water from the creeks.

"The Fire Department didn't have any problem with us," Jordan said. "We know where everything is."

The residents were happy with the firefighters as well.

"They are incredible," Jordan said. "They saved us."

The weather helped too.

The heavy, cold winds fanning the flames switched course before midnight and began knocking the fire down. By 3 a.m., "it was so cold, and the flames were so low, we were out back of my house warming our hands over them," Jordan said.

Some of the residents who had stayed behind emerged Wednesday to pick up provisions at the general store below the canyon, using one of the aging red fire trucks. By midday, the mountain men were headed back up the dirt road, fresh supplies of beer and cigarettes tucked in the back of the truck. Above them on one charred ridge, a line of rescue workers hosed down smoldering embers.

But mostly, the truck climbed through emerald green slopes set against a sparkling blue sky.

"Look at it," exclaimed Romero, who stood watching at the fork of the two canyons. "It's beautiful."

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