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Fire risk as a way of life

Twin Lakes victims total up losses and note the assets of quirky canyon enclave. They vow to rebuild.

October 15, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

October in Twin Lakes is the season Anna Cox backs her car into the driveway so she can escape quickly.

Santa Anas come out of the passes hard there, and in the 23 years she's lived in the canyon, fire has strafed her community too many times to remember. She accepted the risk.

She loved the canyon too much to do anything else -- her little redwood shingle house with the stained-glass windows, the old oaks with their great wrinkled arms, the musicians and ranchers and businesspeople who found refuge from the physical sameness of the suburban grid.

It was almost fitting that, if the place had to go, it would do so in spectacular, artistic fashion. At noon Monday, as two fires raced on opposite ends of the San Fernando Valley, she saw that vision of the end on the ridge.

The sky was dark as night. The wind drove lines of the fire into her canyon like the dogs from hell, the roar so loud, so strange that it was otherworldly.

She started to pack when a helicopter's rotors chopped overhead, with a voice on the loudspeaker. It did not say the bureaucratic "mandatory evacuation"; it screamed, "Run! Just run!"

She jumped into her car -- already pointed downhill -- and bolted. When she came back that afternoon, her 90-year-old home lay in a heap of lath, stucco and timbers charred to the texture of an alligator's back. She lost everything, as did at least seven neighbors. (The week's fires have taken two lives, destroyed 49 structures and burned more than 18,000 acres.)

Cox plans to rebuild on the same spot. Twin Lakes, like so many fire-prone folds in the region's mountainous terrain, seems to breed an endemic canyon species of Southern Californian unlikely to heed an actuary's advice.

"It's just a wonderful, eclectic group of people who love to be individuals and live like this, in the canyon and nature," Cox said Tuesday morning while picking through the debris and soot.

Twin Lakes was built as a resort around two man-made lakes about 1920, in a canyon just above Chatsworth -- out in the wilds at the time. As it grew to about 750 small lots along narrow, rutted roads, the place drew a mishmash of characters angling to get away from city life while remaining near it.

In the 1960s, residents say, Tex Watson lived there while the rest of the Manson family holed up at the Spahn Ranch up the road. Since then, all types of artists and workaday families have moved up for the ambience and sweeping Valley views.

As owners have come and gone, the neighborhood developed an eclectic personality of its own, with A-frame cabins, geodesic domes, junked antique cars, split-rail fences, Space Age satellite dishes, old Spanish bungalows and stucco-box apartments.

Twin Lakes, in other words, is the opposite of its younger neighbor, Porter Ranch, with its broad streets and identical lines of terra cotta-tiled homes. Porter Ranch has acres of defensible space to keep wildfires out -- and rebuffed the very one that scorched Twin Lakes -- but the canyon species simply does not reside there.

Roger Heath, a musician, came to Twin Lakes 20 years ago from Long Beach and lived next door to Cox on Aucas Drive. "I love the privacy," he said. "I could blast my JBLs [speakers] at 4 in the morning at Mach volume and no one would notice."

On Monday he had just packed a 1959 Les Paul guitar into his truck, thinking the fire was still at Porter Ranch a good couple of miles away, when he heard someone shout, "It's right there!"

Giant embers and ash rained through the black smoke. He yelled at his wife to get into the truck, loaded up the dogs and left the rest behind, including 24 other vintage guitars he had collected over the years. His house burned to the ground.

Ironically, he had just received a $35,000 insurance check related to last year's Santa Ana winds, which blew all the solar panels off his house. The check burned in the fire.

But Heath, 60, was upbeat and joked with neighbors about the randomness of the destruction. "I was so happy to see your house standing," he told Lisa Kristal.

"I'm so sorry to see yours did not," she said.

"Just bad luck, I guess."

"I don't believe in luck -- in the grace of God," she said.

"Well, I must be on the other guy's side," he said.

The fire came through so fast that the trees above them were frozen in place, their remaining leaves all pointing southwest.

Heath wondered if there was "a vortex of some kind of energy hanging over the area." Last month, helicopters hovered over his house to get a look at the Metrolink disaster just down the hill, and this month a man facing financial ruin killed himself and five family members in Porter Ranch. "We got an alien thing running through here," Heath said.

Up the hill on Mayan Drive, Leon Chernock came back Tuesday to see if he could recover anything from the remains of his home. "There's nothing," he said.

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