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The State | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Ancient Oak, Once Marked for the Ax, Is Spared -- Again

Simi fire bypasses the Santa Clarita Valley tree whose imminent demise to make room for a road project became a cause celebre a year ago.

October 30, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The ancient Santa Clarita Valley oak tree known as Old Glory survived a plan last year to turn it into lumber.

On Tuesday, it narrowly survived the flames of the Simi fire -- eliciting sighs of relief from the developer of a nearby housing tract and seasoned tree-sitter John Quigley, who spent months sparring over its fate in the media spotlight.

"It would have really been a shame at this point to have the tree succumb to a fire, given the amount of energy and effort put into [saving] it," said Bill Rattazzi, regional president of John Laing Homes, which is spending more than $1 million to relocate Old Glory as a compromise with its supporters.

Los Angeles County firefighters were doubtful early Tuesday afternoon that the tree would be saved as the fire worked its way into the western Santa Clarita Valley. But over the course of the evening, the blaze retreated from the ridges of narrow Pico Canyon near the Southern Oaks subdivision while firefighters in a county fire engine kept a watchful eye on the oak.

By Wednesday morning, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Lindaman deemed the tree officially safe.

"It's a historic landmark around here, so we wanted to make sure nothing happened to it," he said.

The tree's star turn began last Nov. 1, when Quigley climbed into its branches to protest its planned destruction so a nearby road could be widened. The novelty of a suburban tree-sitter -- and the passions stirred by development issues -- soon attracted throngs of supporters and hangers-on who lent the normally quiet neighborhood a carnival air until January, when officials acting on a court order removed Quigley from the tree.

Quigley said he formed an intense bond with the tree while living in its boughs. The activist, also an avowed Laker fan, said he spent Tuesday night nervously flipping his television between the season opener against the Dallas Mavericks and the news reports from Stevenson Ranch.

"I was kind of debating all night to go up there," he said. "I figured the best I could do was hold tight -- being another car on the road" didn't seem like a good idea.

"I'm glad people up there are safe," he added. "I hope the tree is safe."

Quigley and his supporters had planned an anniversary celebration for Saturday, but they decided to push the event back to Nov. 15 to give the neighborhood some time to get back to normal. The 1 p.m. celebration, to take place near the tree, will be broadened to pay tribute to the firefighters who protected Stevenson Ranch from the fire, Quigley said.

The developer plans to move the tree less than a mile away, perhaps as early as mid-January. Quigley and others have argued that moving the centuries-old tree would likely kill it.

On Wednesday, neighbor Bob Good, who never took a side in the Old Glory debate, said he would have hated to see its fate decided by fire.

"After all the time and money that Laing put into it and all the time that Quigley put into it, gosh -- I'd hate to see it go."

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