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Hidden Springs Cafe is secluded, but not from flames

Brothers evacuate popular restaurant as the 'red, roaring monster' draws near.

September 01, 2009|Victoria Kim

For 32 years, Jim Lewis has lived and worked in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, flipping burgers and making sandwiches for hunters, bikers and commuters at his family's Hidden Springs Cafe.

He has watched fires come and go, each one skirting the serene, punch bowl-shaped canyon where the cafe is located. The only sound is often the nearby stream and the rustling of deer, coyote and the occasional mountain lion.

But early Monday, Lewis found himself listening to freeway traffic near his sister's Burbank home, unable to sleep as he thought about the wall of flames he saw closing in on Hidden Springs just before he fled.

Lewis, 53, and his brother Otis, 57, tried desperately Sunday afternoon to save the 22-acre property where he ran the cafe and lived with his brother and mother, who was out of town. Thick smoke turned everything black and 80-foot flames emerged over the ridge south of the canyon, he said.

"If there is a hell, my brother and I were in it," he said. "That red, roaring monster just came up over the hill, and it was the deepest, reddest, orange flames."

Officials at the Station fire command center said they could not confirm what became of the cafe and other properties south of Angeles Forest Highway and Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road. A fire assessor tried to enter the area Sunday but was thwarted by a collapsed culvert, said Dianne Cahir, a U.S. Forest Service information officer.

In the same canyon, along Angeles Forest Highway, a Korean Christian prayer center and two properties used as filming locations may have been damaged or destroyed, residents said.

Barbara Webb owns Singing Springs, a property used as a location for movies and music videos. Webb said her gatekeeper, who lives on the property, saw a blast of flames coming from the direction of the adjacent Hidden Springs, and embers and balls of fire landed on a building on her property. Webb said she was up all night, worrying about what happened to the property her father purchased in 1947.

Lewis said he had little hope that his cafe and home had been spared. He and his brother had fought the fire since Friday, barely sleeping, hauling hoses and nozzles to get as much water on the buildings as possible. They had no help from fire crews, he said.

About 4 p.m. Sunday, a fire official told the brothers they had to leave.

They drove about a mile north, pulled their trucks over and looked back. The flames were on their tail, moving almost as fast as they had been driving, Lewis said.

Lewis said he served generations of people at his cafe and had customers who came in regularly over decades. He said he received nonstop phone calls from customers as far as Texas, Idaho and New Jersey.

Connie "Bunny" Kelly, 64, who said she has been going to the cafe for more than 30 years, recalled how Otis would play his banjo and their mother, Elva, would tell stories. It was a favorite spot for motorcycle riders, she said in a phone interview.

"I'm just devastated," she said. "People felt at home there. It was like their second home."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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