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Some residents in burn areas ignore orders to evacuate

In La Crescenta's Briggs Terrace neighborhood, volunteers form 'ember shifts,' checking eaves and yards for flames. Nearly half of Acton's 2,300 residents are staying in their homes.

August 31, 2009|Louis Sahagun, Sam Quinones and Cara Mia DiMassa

About a dozen residents of Maurice Avenue on the north end of an island of La Crescenta homes known as Briggs Terrace found themselves in the middle of the street late Saturday, taking stock of their situation.

They were surrounded by fire on three sides, and there were no firefighters or law enforcement in sight. Someone asked a question that was on everyone's mind: Is anybody leaving? All shook their heads.

The evacuation order had come after nightfall for the Briggs Terrace area, a collection of century-old Craftsman and cabin-style homes, along with newer stucco homes.

"We started thinking smart and came up with a plan," said Greg Lievense, 54, an engineer at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One neighbor began stockpiling ladders and flashlights. The group organized into three-member teams and agreed no one would be alone through the emergency.

"We broke up into 'ember shifts' " Lievense said, with each group taking turns peering into the eaves and backyards of their neighbors, searching for glowing embers or flames and responding if possible.

They developed an emergency signal -- three long honks of a car horn -- which would mean that a home was on fire or that they would all have to leave, he said.

In Acton, Altadena, La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge, many residents whose neighborhoods were under mandatory evacuation orders because of the Station fire weighed a tough choice: Should they heed officials' demands to evacuate, leave with their children, pets and valuables and hope that firefighters would defend their homes should the flames get too close? Or should they stay and try, somehow, to defend their homes?

At a news conference Sunday afternoon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cautioned that even considering such a decision was wrong-headed. "They would not tell you to evacuate if it is not necessary," he said of the sheriff's deputies who had been issuing evacuation orders by automated phone calls and in person.

Schwarzenegger tried to underline the risks that holdouts could face. He said that three people injured Saturday in Big Tujunga Canyon had placed themselves in harm's way because they had not heeded evacuation orders.

"Three people got burned and really badly injured because they did not listen," the governor said.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said two of the injured people thought that they could protect themselves by jumping into a hot tub. But when 80- to 100-foot flames came roaring through their neighborhood, both were seriously burned and had to be airlifted to a nearby hospital. Whitmore said he did not have information on the third person.

When an evacuation order is issued, Whitmore said, it is important to "go, and go now. You don't have several hours to wait any more."

But not everyone agreed. In Acton, where evacuation orders were issued Saturday night, nearly half the community's 2,300 residents decided to stay behind, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Christy Guyovich. She said that sheriff's officials lacked the legal authority to arrest people who disregarded evacuation orders.

Officials were taking down contact details to notify next of kin in case those staying put are injured or killed.

On Sunday afternoon, deputies made a second pass through Acton's Sterling Ridge neighborhood, urging people to leave.

But Janet and George Pierson decided to give the deputies their names and stay put. They sat on lawn chairs in their frontyard, sipping beer and watching as two planes passed overhead.

Janet Pierson said their home was equipped with a tile roof, sprinklers along their hillside -- and lots of beer. In addition, she said, "we have a lot of faith in the fire department."

Those residents who did decide to stay had varying degrees of knowledge about how to defend their homes, some learning on the job, others practiced veterans.

Charlie Seo, 30, a La Crescenta high school teacher and member of the Briggs Terrace ember team, said one member of the group had a high-pressure fire hose, which required a bit of practice for those unaccustomed to it.

"Each of us took turns practicing with it so that we could become familiar with its recoil and aim the jet," he said.

Then there's Bruce Steele, who lives with his wife and daughter in a three-bedroom cabin in Altadena, against a hill below Chaney Trail.

Steele is an environmental health and safety manager at Occidental College, and a beekeeper as well. But his real second job is preventing fire on his property.

Steele has two layers of Class A fire protectant on his roof. The vents to his attic are double meshed. He had dug extensive trails around his home, to allow firefighters access to the deepest recesses of the property.

A 6,000-gallon swimming pool that was on the property when he bought it 13 years ago has been converted into a water tank, with 500 feet of fire hose and a generator attached. He also has thermal gel ready to spray on the roof.

"I have infinite faith in the firefighters," he said. "But there's a lot of things that I can do with the hose."

About 50 yards south, another man was preparing to douse his roof and that of his neighbor.

The man, who asked not to be identified, said that he had sent his family away, but had stayed behind, armed with a hose and police scanner. Firefighters had parked a firetruck in his driveway Saturday night.

He said that he believed the danger was slim and that he could do more to protect his house by staying and remaining vigilant.

"Everything seems to be OK," he said. But "if I see a huge wall of fire, you better believe I'm gone."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, Corina Knoll and Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.

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