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Waiting and worrying as flames toy with a town

In La Cañada Flintridge, the blaze has loitered, then lunged, leaving residents on edge.

August 30, 2009|CHRIS ERSKINE

My town on the edge of the hill is fearful and a little forlorn. For four days, the flames have crept across the mountain. There's been barely a wisp of wind to feed it or hurry it along. So it chews its way slowly through the scrub oak, the manzanita, the buckwheat. I look up at the ridge, lighted like a candelabra, and think: Now it's our turn. Dante's California.

Saturday, there was a sense of relief, then more concern as the fire fattened itself on neighboring communities. At this point, it could explode, or it could mostly smolder till cool weather comes.

In the news business, they say no one cares about wildfires except the folks amid them. Well, those folks really, really care. Here in La Canada Flintridge, there is talk of calling the TV stations pleading for more coverage and information. There is talk of calling Sacramento to release those ginormous water-dropping planes. The rest of us, we watch the hillsides, we wait. The smoke is surreal, a curtain that just won't fall.

Even in the best of times, La Canada Flintridge can be an odd place -- afraid of change one moment, dynamic and progressive the next. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory lives here, as do countless entertainment execs. The Dodgers' Rafael Furcal lives here too, up the hill, near the candelabra.

La Canada is known for its wealth and its schools, but like every small town, it has its quirks and its kooks. When we moved here 15 years ago, the John Birch Society had a booth at the Memorial Day picnic. When the pols recently wanted to tap families $150 to help education, a reasonable sum in a town of million-dollar homes, they had a fight on their hands, believe you me.

And now they have these fires.

They are intense but, until Saturday, were moving mercifully slow. Their slow pace was better for everybody -- firefighters, evacuees -- but draining nonetheless. It reminded me of awaiting a hurricane, the way we did in the South. As you may know from sweaty Robert Mitchum movies, hurricanes are dastardly things; they hold you hostage.

Same with these blazes, which began Wednesday and just seemed to loiter. Most wildfires, you don't dare turn your back. On this one, most of my neighbors went to bed like always Thursday and Friday, figuring it'd still be where it was by morning. It was moving slowly all right. But it was moving.

By late afternoon Saturday, damage reports were remarkably low, considering the acreage burned. Firefighters made a stand on the hillsides, yet the fire seemed to mock them by spreading east, then west, toward Altadena and La Crescenta.

La Canada, a town of 20,671, has always been a potential tinderbox. Fire officials have pleaded with residents for years to cut back the giant deodars that bridge the roadways. County firefighters have done controlled burns in the area for the last five years, hoping to prevent the worst-case scenario: a fire barreling down the crest, pushed by the ferocious Santa Anas, into the bull's-eye that is La Canada.

But this has been a more subdued storm, if such things can ever be that. As the fire inched slowly down the hill Friday night, what winds there were pushed it back up, slowing it even further. As it reached the edge of town Saturday, it seemed to rebound and spread. So, we watch. We wait.

"Happy Valley," I call it, for, despite its provincial nature, La Canada is still a remarkably comfortable suburb, stubbornly traditional and relentlessly earnest. The moms basically run the place. The dads show up on weekends.

No surprise, the most timely news on these fires has come from Facebook, that province of the modern mother.

"The parts of the mountain that burned last night look like they've had a buzz cut," Kathy Hernandez wrote Friday. "The fire's definitely spread out since yesterday. I was down at the high school for the back to school teacher luncheon. . . . They've got the North Gym all set up with cots in case people need a place to sleep."

Ash is everywhere, SoCal snow -- on the rooftops, on the cars. The Pasadena Humane Society is standing by, ready to help care for pets. One of the insurance companies has already set up shop.

School opens Monday. Maybe.

At JPL, helicopters refuel on the mesa, then dip their buckets in the ponds at the country club. Everywhere, smoke and flames. And 5% containment.

So the evacuations, and the worry, continue. The dads clean the gutters of leaves and other potential fuel, load the car and point it toward the street for a quick getaway.

As for those Super Scoopers, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino says he and others have been working on it. He says the government contract with the Canadian firm that supplies the planes doesn't start till Sept. 1 (Tuesday). The firm agreed to send them early, but they are grounded by the weather up north. And it usually takes two days to get them here.

Till then, we watch the hillsides. At night, they look like lava.

And we wait.

--

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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