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Mother Nature's no match for this family

The tale of a woman, her ex-husband, their son, a daughter from a previous relationship, and their grandmother who shows off her three boyfriends and her hot rods. Oh, and a massive wildfire.

September 02, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Yes, the brush-snapping flames were close and getting closer.

Yes, the choppers were hovering like giant red insects, sneezing great flumes of water onto the blaze.

And yes, they'd been ordered to evacuate.

But JoAnn Wrobel and her family were the picture of calm high in the La Crescenta foothills Tuesday, albeit with one son on the roof rigging a garden hose to sprinklers. Wrobel and daughter Rashea reclined comfortably in lawn chairs on the street, next to her convertible Mercedes with its "HPPNSS" license plate, a little heart after the last "s."

Big fire.

No sweat.

"You want a cold drink?" asked Wrobel, a lifelong La Crescenta resident. "Water, Gatorade? How about a cold beer?"

They're a hardy bunch, hill-dwelling Californians, conditioned by years of mudslides, earthquakes and wildfires. And while it may not be the world's smartest idea to ignore an evacuation notice, the folks on Boston Avenue didn't appear in imminent peril.

The fire danced atop a ridge 200 yards away, with firefighters seemingly in control. Wrobel and family had stuffed their most precious belongings into vehicles that were ready to roll if the fire should reach their street. I wondered how long she and her husband, Mike, had lived here on the low face of the San Gabes, and here, the story took a Pynchonesque turn.

"He's my ex-husband," she said of Mike Robie, a property manager, who smiled and shrugged.

"He's a nice guy," Wrobel told me, saying they remained friends in part for the sake of their two children. "Just not that nice to be married to."

She said it in a good-natured way, and with equal good humor Robie joked that he felt sorry for Wrobel's new husband.

"I know what he's in for," he said.

"He's amazing," Wrobel, an investment banker, said in defense of her new man, a CPA.

Wrobel's current husband was away in San Diego when the fire got close Tuesday, tending to a son who returned from overseas military duty with a life-threatening illness. So Wrobel called Robie, whose GMC truck she thought would make a great fire-evacuation vehicle.

And so Rashea is one of their two kids?

No, said Wrobel. Rashea Sanchez came from an "out of wedlock" relationship many years ago, but Mike, the ex, is like a father to Rashea, according to Wrobel. It's no wonder this crew can take an approaching calamity in stride.

Over my shoulder, the blaze appeared capable of making a run down the hill and smoking out all this happiness, but the Wrobel clan, which ought to have its own reality show, seemed like a more interesting story than yet another wildfire dispatch.

Robie said that by coincidence, he was at this same house in 1975, trying to help a different occupant defend it from a fire that ended up damaging the back portion. And he was on yet another distress call Tuesday morning when his ex called from her downtown office, asking him to get his truck to her house as fast as he could and begin loading it up.

"I was with a friend's mother for four nights," Robie said, telling me about an 85-year-old woman who had refused to evacuate her La Crescenta home until the fire knocked at the back door. Robie, who ought to go into this line of work, said both the woman and her house survived the flames.

OK, but is this any way to live?

It's not really that dangerous, said Robie, who lives in a much safer part of La Crescenta. Sure, he recalls a flood basin overflowing and taking out a house many years ago, and that fire back in the '70s took out a lot of homes. But if you're not up against the brush, you should be safe, he and Wrobel said.

The beauty of La Crescenta, said Wrobel, is that it's got everything you need with no traffic, and it's close enough to downtown and the Valley to make L.A. living endlessly enjoyable.

"Pasadena has too much traffic," agreed her son Tavin, 18, who also happens to be Robie's son. Tavin had just come down off the roof, where he had the sprinklers ready to go.

Then there's the wildlife, which includes deer, fox, raccoons, coyote and the occasional tarantula crawling up out of the wash out back, all of which Wrobel counts as pluses, with the possible exception of the tarantulas. And you can't believe the sunsets, she said, or the cooling canyon breezes, even if they do occasionally seem capable of blowing a house all the way to Monrovia.

Above us, helicopters attacked a roaring blaze as it moved toward some oversized red-tiled homes that were foolishly built too high in the canyon and too close to brush.

"I fought to keep those houses out," said Wrobel's mother, Sandy Norris, who had just dropped by to make sure everyone was OK.

Norris lives nearby, and unlike her daughter, she followed orders and cleared out when the evacuation order came on Saturday.

"Tell him what you took when you evacuated," Wrobel said. "Not our baby pictures, no."

"I got the hot rods out," said Norris, a 70-year-old grandma.

The hot rods?

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