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Gold Creek Ranch evacuation holdouts tell their Station fire tale of survival

The group stayed put to protect the private retreat at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. 'We did everything right,' one holdout says.

September 05, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz

The Gold Creek Ranch edges the Angeles National Forest north of Sunland, a 160-acre estate with high hills and open fields, where a 3-foot-tall wooden statue of Buddha rests under an oak tree and residents do yoga on flat rocks next to yucca plants.

"It's a spiritual place," says Nicholas Bowrin, 47, who has been staying at the ranch for a little over two years. The ranch's owner, 77-year-old Jack Johnson, said the "property is my life."

"I'm 23 miles from Hollywood and Vine right now, but I'm at the end of the world," Johnson said Thursday afternoon at the ranch, after fire licked at the private retreat.

The regulars at the ranch became news during the Station fire for refusing to evacuate when Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies told Johnson and a handful of others at the ranch that it was unsafe and that they should leave.

Over the last week, public safety officers went to lengths to urge residents in and close to the San Gabriel Mountains to leave the backcountry as the blaze grew into the largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history.

Three people were burned last Saturday in Big Tujunga Canyon when they tried to protect their homes from the flames, two of them trying to escape the fire by jumping into a hot tub.

At Gold Creek Ranch, the regulars stayed put.

Deputies asked the group several times to evacuate, said Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore. He said the group at one point called authorities asking to be rescued, but because the fire had advanced on the area, it wasn't safe to send crews to help.

The Sheriff's Department considered sending a helicopter up to get them, but officials determined that too would be too dangerous, Whitmore said.

"These people refused to evacuate. And we had to dedicate resources to continually assess their situation. And if they had evacuated, that wouldn't have been necessary," Whitmore said. "We were focused on it when we could have been focused on other things. . . . When we ask you to evacuate, please evacuate."

Bowrin, Johnson and others at the ranch, however, said they never called authorities to ask for a rescue. Johnson said his ranch is equipped with its own water supply, pumps and other firefighting equipment.

So on Thursday afternoon, after the immediate threat had passed, Bowrin and Suzette Brantley, 37, sat on the porch of the ranch house, sipping cans of Coors beer, seemingly at peace.

One ranch guest, 52-year-old Kevin Tobin, said "the spirit of the fire came in with the roar of a dragon" before lying back down on itself. Indeed, just the edge of the ranch had been turned to ash.

Johnson said that despite the flames -- which he estimated reached 200 feet high -- the heart of the ranch was not burned because brush had been cleared.

He said the ranch also had large containers filled with retardant gel that they sprayed over the buildings and immediate acreage.

But Bowrin and Brantley said there were other reasons the area was largely untouched.

"I put a force-field around this place when I found out about the fire," Brantley said.

Bowrin had another theory, saying it was because he and the other people there had worked hard to protect the property.

"Because we did everything right, because we weren't cocky and sitting . . . and just saying hell, 'We're gonna be fine'. We did everything we could to protect the place and then we were going to protect ourselves," Bowrin said. "And then the fire said OK, you respected me, I'll respect your place, and you look, it went right around us."

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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