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Station fire burn victim speaks out

Julius Goff, severely burned after taking refuge in a hot tub, says he didn't ignore a mandatory evacuation order but instead stayed behind to warn 10 neighbors who did not receive the order to leave.

October 06, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other authorities held them up as examples of irresponsible behavior. They were the butt of jokes. But one of the two Big Tujunga Canyon residents who jumped into a hot tub to escape the raging Station fire says they are being unfairly judged.

Julius Goff, who suffered serious burns, told The Times that he did not ignore a mandatory evacuation order but instead stayed behind to warn 10 neighbors who did not receive the order to leave. By the time he reached his own house, with plans to get his housemate and get out, the fire had surrounded them.

Trapped, the men ran screaming through 50-to-100-foot flames to what they saw as their best hope: the only pool of water within reach.

Later, Goff watched in tears from a hospital bed as they were repeatedly castigated on TV. Then he learned that everything he owned was lost in the fire.

"I'm not some idiot who ignores the evacuation order," Goff said Sunday as he surveyed the piles of debris and ash, which are all that remain of the two-story house. "I got a 10-year-old son. I don't want to die."

Goff's account of trying to step into the void when authorities failed to reach all of his neighbors comes amid other questions about how the fire was fought in the Angeles National Forest. Reinforcements from Los Angeles County were scaled back early in the battle, and federal officials now say they are investigating the actions that allowed the blaze to rage out of control. The fire, which began Aug. 23 above La Canada Flintridge, became the largest in recorded county history and killed two county firefighters when their truck plunged off a mountain road.

Goff, a 50-year-old single father who lives on Social Security, moved into the canyon community of Vogel Flats seven years ago. An elderly resident offered them a free room in his house on Stonyvale Road in exchange for help maintaining the place.

Goff said that when firefighters from Orange County arrived in Vogel Flats the morning of Aug. 26, he was one of two residents asked to show them around as they recorded the number of people in each dwelling and where propane and water tanks were located. Although a voluntary evacuation order was in effect, Goff said fire officials told residents they thought the fire might bypass their community.

"They said don't worry, we are going to put a truck in front of every house," Goff said.

Even so, Goff was concerned about his neighbor, Trevor Pullen, who has been in a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident six years ago. He went to Pullen's house and advised him to leave. When Pullen's caregiver called to say she was stuck at a checkpoint, Pullen met her to escort her into the canyon. Then she and another aide loaded Pullen, his chair and three dogs into two vehicles, which sped off.

"This guy saved my life," Pullen said Sunday.

By this time, it was nearly noon and flames had appeared on a ridge above the strip of cabins and homes. Sheriff's deputies started banging on residents' doors, telling them to get out immediately. When Goff headed down the road to check on other neighbors, he said the deputies tried to stop him.

"I said, 'But there's more people down there, aren't you going to get them?' " Goff said. "They said: 'We're leaving.' "

Members of the Incident Command say they did the best they could without putting the lives of firefighters and deputies at risk. At an emotional meeting with Tujunga residents last week, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp said the terrain was too dangerous to make a stand in Big Tujunga Canyon, and officials had no choice but to order crews to pull out.

On Monday, Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore emphasized how unpredictable the fire had been.

"Sometimes the evacuation orders were given, and you needed to respond instantly," he said, adding that he was relieved to hear Goff was recovering.

Goff said that when he saw sheriff's deputies and fire crews leave, he made the decision to head deeper into the canyon. He knew his neighbors were still loading their vehicles, unaware that the voluntary evacuation had become urgent. He told them to drop everything and go.

At his house, Goff found the garage and a boat parked in the frontyard already on fire. He kicked open a chicken coop to let the birds out and ran inside the house. Goff's son was safe with his sister, and his landlord was away on a hunting trip. But their new housemate -- a man he knew only by his first name, Peter -- had not evacuated. He found him in tears.

"We've got to get out of here," Goff recalled telling Peter. The fire's heat was melting the window frames. A moose head hanging in the living room burst into flames.

"I'm panicking now," Goff said. "I figure we're dead."

For a minute, he considered emptying out two big meat freezers and hiding inside. Then he remembered the hot tub.

Goff grabbed a pair of jeans, ripped them in half and soaked them with water from a water heater so they would have something wet to put over their faces.

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