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In Big Tujunga Canyon, fire leaves behind mourners and miracles

As residents return to this sanctuary in the Angeles National Forest, some go home to only piles of rubble while the houses of others are completely untouched by flames.

September 02, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

BIG TUJUNGA CANYON — Hand in hand, they picked their way through the smoky haze, past blackened oak trees and up a dirt trail blanketed in ash.

They finally saw it -- their home of nearly 40 years. All that was left were the stone foundation and the fireplace standing tall amid piles of debris. Julie Garcia stumbled into the arms of her husband, Ernie, and sobbed.

"It looks like the moon," Ernie Garcia said quietly.

Big Tujunga Canyon is a popular spot for hiking, camping and fishing in the Angeles National Forest. But it is also home to many families like the Garcias, who found among its thick forest and jagged peaks a quiet sanctuary minutes from the city of La Crescenta.

Through the years, these families have weathered brush fires, but nothing, they said, like the one that stormed through Saturday afternoon.

At first, fire officials told residents of Stonyvale and Vogel Flats, adjacent hamlets along Big Tujunga Canyon Road, that it appeared their cabins would be spared. But about noon Saturday, fire officials pounded on doors and told residents to run.

The Garcias had just enough time to load up their dog, three cats, two parakeets and some clothing before flames as high as the treetops raced down the mountain behind their Stonyvale home, a former church retreat built in the 1930s.

The couple, along with their youngest daughter, Jessie, 19, retreated to Julie's parents' home in Sunland. From there, they repeatedly dialed their home number, just to hear it ring and go to voice mail.

"It was a glimmer of hope," said Ernie Garcia, 58, a writer, musician and character actor.

But when the U.S. Forest Service began escorting residents back Tuesday, to see what remained, the Garcias could not find the phone among the rubble.

Ernie Garcia pointed out the garage where he used to do art projects.

"Hey, your guitar stand is here," Julie Garcia, 59, called out, pointing inside what had been a prayer room.

"And here's the piano," she said, pointing to a blackened frame with strings still attached, near the living room fireplace.

More than 30 homes and other structures were destroyed in the remote canyon area. Others were inexplicably spared.

Bronwen Aker, a 45-year-old Web designer and technical trainer, stood dumbfounded before a red cabin in Vogel Flats, which she inherited from her grandmother.

"It is an absolute, unabashed miracle," she said. "The inside is exactly the way I left it. There is hardly even the smell of smoke."

When she fled Saturday, "it was like a hurricane of smoke and ashes and flames," she said. "I have no idea how or why my cabin was spared. . . . I have a bottle of champagne that I have had in my fridge for months. I pulled it out, and I'm going to crack it open with friends tonight and celebrate."

Down the road, past several charred lots, Barbara Andrews, 75, was celebrating her own miracle. In the panic of departure, Andrews' cat streaked out of the house and could not be found. Andrews was in tears. But when the retired nurse returned Tuesday, she found the property unscathed and heard the cat meowing in the garage.

"I call her Poopsie, but I should call her Survivor," Andrews said.

The tiny, tight-knit communities have attracted a diverse group of singles and families, retirees and professionals. Although many of the lots are small and close together, the thick forest made each one feel like a private retreat. Some residents refused to leave; two of them were badly burned after trying to take refuge from the fire in a hot tub.

"It is paradise," Aker said. "Here we are 15 to 20 minutes away from civilization and surrounded by nature. . . . The noisiest neighbors are usually the coyotes, and it's a lot easier to forgive them. They don't party all night long."

The Garcias raised three children here. To them, every neighbor has seemed like family.

"It was amazing," said their eldest son, Edan, 39, who accompanied his parents Tuesday. "It was just a giant playground for kids, all the oak trees and the stream. . . . It's so hard -- when this has been such a big part of your life -- to see it not be there."

Many residents said they hope to rebuild, but it remains to be seen how many will be allowed to do so. The Garcias could not afford insurance and do not know if they can raise the money to start over here.

Big Tujunga Canyon is a mix of private and government land. The U.S. Park Service issued about 50 permits to maintain second homes here, including some that allow year-round use, in part because it means there are more eyes watching over the land, said district ranger Michael McIntyre.

Only 19 of these properties are believed to be left standing, including four of Vogel Flats' six cabins and three of the eight in Stonyvale. He did not know how many private homes were destroyed.

On Tuesday, he picked up anxious residents from a Ralph's parking lot in La Crescenta and escorted them in small groups for brief visits to view what was left of their properties.

For some, it was a chance to collect a few extra clothing items, medicine and other essentials. For others, it was a chance to begin coming to terms with their loss.

"They need closure," he said.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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