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The Region

Calling for Help in Wildfire Country

Safety: Neighbor says phone service could have made a critical difference when destructive Wolf blaze erupted. It took 20 minutes to alert rangers.

June 30, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes when he is alone at the bar he owns high above Ojai, Tom Wolf can almost hear his doctor's warning: Isolation is no place for a man with a bad heart and no phone.

The 64-year-old was reminded of his cardiologist's words June 1 when a wildfire, which would soon bear his name, began roaring across Los Padres National Forest after starting in the backyard of Wolf's bar.

With no phone service available for Wolf to call for help, forest rangers only learned of the fire when a bar patron on a motorcycle raced up the hill and told them in person 20 minutes later.

Wolf, a retired Oxnard college professor, said he wants to make sure he doesn't face a similar disaster without a way to reach authorities.

There will be a noon meeting at his bar today to discuss establishing an emergency communication network for the fewer than 400 people living without regular phone service in the mountains and canyons nearby. Wolf said he plans to purchase a satellite telephone, the best bet for communicating in the area, and he wants others living in the area to do the same.

Across the state, more than 112,000 people live in areas so isolated that land phone lines and cellular towers usually never reach them. Some live in rural desert villages, but most live in bone-dry forests, and their homes could be destroyed if predictions of a record wildfire season are correct.

Phone companies have typically avoided doing the costly work needed to provide service in rural areas because it can take years to see a financial return, officials said.

"It's a business decision; they want to make sure they get their investment back," said Linda Rochester, an analyst with the state Public Utilities Commission, who has worked on a state Assembly bill that will provide $10 million in state grants to bring phone service to rural communities next June.

"It's strange that some people still don't have phone service. There may be people who don't want phone service, but for those who do, it [will be] available," she said.

Wolf spent last week driving back and forth from his Oxnard home up to Los Padres National Forest attempting to alert people about his meeting.

Along dirt roads and in remote cabin communities, Wolf posted photocopied fliers on mailboxes and bulletin boards from the Sespe Wilderness to the Rose and Lockwood valleys. Wolf said the meeting is an effort to explore ideas to create a communication system, either through satellite phones or shortwave radio.

"I want to show how important [communication] is," Wolf said. "They could have a heart attack or chop their arm off with a chainsaw. Everyone who can afford it should have one."

The bar owner said he has received few responses from his invitation, and he is unsure who will attend. Two sheriff's deputies who patrol the 860 square miles of rocky peaks and wooded forests will be there, as will a representative from a satellite phone service.

"The people that are interested in having people know where they are will be there," said Senior Deputy Bob Berger, who works out of the Lockwood Valley Sheriff's Station. "Some people up there just don't want people to know where they are, and they like not having outside contact.

A former neighborhood activist in Oxnard, Wolf said he has tried and failed before to build support for what he had called the Neighborhood Council for the People of Los Padres.

"It's hard to contact people, because they don't want to be contacted or be organized," Wolf said. "It was so inefficient and there was such a lack of interest that I gave up on it."

The recent fire has pushed him to try again. No one wants a fire named after them, he said, especially one that Wolf said could have been prevented.

Wolf is convinced an emergency plan starting with better communication among those living deep in the forest can prevent the spread of wildfires in the future.

When the June 1 fire broke out just before 3 p.m., Wolf said, several people at the bar--a popular stop for the weekend biker crowd--tried to use their cell phones to call for help.

A few bikers hopped on their choppers and headed up the two-lane highway near the bar waving their cell phones in the air along the way trying in vain to get a signal.

Fire crews from the U.S. Forest Service's Ozena Station near Lockwood Valley Road, about a 20-minute ride north of the bar, were finally alerted to the blaze when a motorcyclist reached them, Wolf said.

By the time the first crews arrived 20 minutes later--at least 40 minutes after the blaze began--the fire was already racing toward twin peaks behind the bar and, beyond that, miles of dry chaparral and pine.

Before it was stopped, the Wolf fire would burn for two weeks, scorch nearly 23,000 acres and cost federal, state and county agencies more than $14 million to extinguish. And it didn't have to happen, Wolf said.

Although far from guaranteed to hold a signal in the forest, a satellite phone may have permitted forest service officials to be alerted that much sooner, he said.

People living deep off some of the winding dirt roads that lead up to Pine Mountain Ridge and to the Lockwood Valley said the recent fire was a reminder that good communication is critical.

Tilford Jackson, a 41-year-old professional musician, commutes from Los Angeles to a one-room cabin he shares with his aging Labrador retriever, Count Basie, in a forest area of the Lockwood Valley. He said he will miss the meeting because he is working, "but we definitely need some cell service up here."

Jackson and dozens of other residents who live along a flowing stream stocked year-round with rainbow trout say they have inquired about getting regular telephone service established for their area.

"We're at the end of Ventura County," Jackson said. "No one wants to come up here. They think we're all a bunch of crazy loners."

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