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Evicted From Forest Homes

Mountain residents are distraught at evacuation order. Some say they could help prevent fires.

September 26, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

During the last two closures of the Angeles National Forest for extreme fire danger, John Grancich received a waiver to remain in his cabin nestled in a shady canyon above Altadena. But with the latest evacuation order, the longtime resident was told he had two days to pack his things and leave.

"It's going to be impossible," said the 61-year-old general contractor Saturday. "I'd have to move my computers, my drafting table, all my clothes, my tools, two vehicles and then find a place to stay."

It's a predicament dozens, maybe hundreds, of residents living full- or part-time in the remote mountain areas found themselves in after officials announced Friday that 80% of the 680,000-acre forest would be closed today at midnight.

Residents say they need more time and would prefer to stay to protect their property. But forest officials say they have been raising fire warnings for months and cabin dwellers should always be ready to evacuate.

"This is the last thing we wanted to see happen," said Stanton Florea, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. "Any time we limit public access, it's for a good reason. Obviously, we're trying to avoid a repeat of last year."

Last fall, wildfires killed 26 people, charred 738,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,600 homes in Southern California.

Experts say conditions are as dry as a year ago. And with last week's arrival of the Santa Ana winds, forest officials say evacuation is the only safe choice.

But residents and campground operators say they could help prevent fires by staying.

"We can be the eyes and ears out here," said Lonnie Fehr, a forest volunteer who runs a Millard Canyon campsite, home to about 16 residents.

"A ranger called me Friday afternoon and asked me to leave," said Fehr, 49. "It was so late in the day, there was no one [at the Forest Service] to call back. I'm trying to see if they can sign me a waiver. Otherwise I'm going to have to live out of my truck."

Fehr and his neighbors could face up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail if they refuse to leave, officials said.

Down the trail 50 yards from the campsite was Marco Ramos, a six-year resident of the area who was so fire-conscious, he wouldn't let a neighbor light a cigarette on his porch.

"My biggest problem is the amount of time they gave us to leave," said Ramos, a chemistry lab manager. "I understand there's extreme circumstances, but giving us two days is extremely rude. But I'm going to obey the rules, get out of here and hope there's a suspension of the evacuation."

Residents also expressed concern that an evacuation would invite burglars.

They said many mountain bikers ignored closure orders the last two times, in 2003 and 2001, and officials didn't stop them.

The closures include all hiking trails. Visitors are prohibited from Chantry Flats, Upper Westfork, Millard, the Clear Creek area and camps along Santa Clara Divide Road.

"My heart goes out to these people who have to leave," said Sherry Rollman, a forest spokeswoman. "However, we want to save their lives."

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