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Two Southern California towns try to get back to work after fire threat

Many firms in La Cañada Flintridge and Tujunga find business is slow to recover.

September 07, 2009|David Sarno

Ash-gray cars filled the lanes at Crescenta Valley Car Wash on Sunday, waiting their turn to reclaim whatever shine they had before the wildfire danced in the foothills above La Canada Flintridge.

A week ago, towering flames were visible from this parking lot. But now, the smoke is clearing along this strip of shops and restaurants on Foothill Boulevard, and a normal weekend is almost visible through the haze.

"I'm sorry to say that after the fire, we've had very good business," said manager Ed Isagholi, pointing to the line of customer-packed benches. Some vehicles need to be run through twice, he said, and the detailing garage is backed up with cars whose owners neglected to be careful when opening soot-stuffed doors.

Even with the post-fire bump, Isagholi said, business is still down about 45% for the year because of recessionary scrimping -- and the frayed nerves the fire left in its wake aren't exactly an economic stimulus.

Many local business owners and employees live in or near the fire zone to the direct north and are quick to recount stories of the inferno in their backyards.

"You woke up and you couldn't breathe," said Moe Abghary, who owns a Middle Eastern restaurant a mile down from the carwash. He was asked to evacuate his house twice during the peak of the fire, once in the middle of the night. (He didn't leave either time.) "The mushroom cloud we had -- it was like an atomic bomb had gone off."

Mist from an outdoor cooling system fell on a few lunch-goers on the patio of Abghary's restaurant, Garden Grill, but the dining room was empty. Customers were beginning to return, he said, but it was likely to be awhile before the town's appetite came back.

"You're worried about your house burning down, you're not going to eat," he said.

Abghary was one of a chorus of business owners who sang the praises of the firefighters and emergency workers, who he felt had saved the town -- homes, businesses and people -- from disaster. The roof of Abghary's restaurant displayed a banner declaring that "Firefighters eat free!"

In another sign of community solidarity a few stoplights down, cheerleaders from La Canada High School joined local firefighters on the sidewalk, hoping to collect money for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which assists injured firefighters and their families.

A group of twentysomething employees at PetSmart said business was settling down again after an eventful week of alarmed customers and strange happenings. Early on, the store quickly sold out of scores of pet carriers, and the cash registers were busy as neighborhood pet owners -- and the Red Cross -- came by to stock up on dog and cat food.

Store manager Brittany Kephart said a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy had called to inquire whether she knew anyone who could temporarily house two buffalo. (She did.) Meanwhile, said cashier Brandy Lange, some people were leaving animals in the PetSmart parking lot. After a man left a "really pretty" 4 1/2 -foot corn snake in a box out front, Lange called her aunt to ask whether she could take it for a while. (She could.)

Tanya Kaveh, another cashier, excitedly opened a flip phone to show a picture of a lawn with a flame-raked cliff-side in the immediate background. "That's my frontyard!" she said, explaining that her family had to evacuate their house.

Farther down Foothill in Tujunga -- a town already flecked noticeably with empty storefronts and vacant lots -- the aftermath of the fire seemed to weigh more heavily on some businesses.

Classic Flowers, a small, family-owned shop in an aging strip mall, was quiet except for the hum of the wall refrigerators. Zoya Makaryan sat behind the counter wearing a distressed look.

Saying that in the wake of the fire business had ground to a halt, she ruefully held up an invoice for a flower arrangement. "This week I have only this order."

None of the other businesses that shared a parking lot with Classic Flowers seemed to have any customers either.

"Nobody's coming in," said Hovik Nazari, the proprietor of a bodega next to the flower store. Many of his regular customers are elderly women who don't drive -- and it's not a good weekend for a walk. "There's too much smoke," he said.

Not helping the community is that Angeles Crest Highway, the main highway to the smoldering Angeles National Forest, has been closed indefinitely, probably choking off tourism for the remainder of the summer and adding stress to tourism-related businesses.

At the last gas station before the entrance to the forest, Shell clerk David Chung guessed business has been off 20% since the road closed.

Around the corner at the Cakery Bakery, Zora Yasseri said several parties -- and their cake orders -- had been canceled last week, although a local wedding went forward by relocating to Pasadena. Of business as a whole, she said the fire had stung, but the larger problem was the lousy economy.

Meaning that although the Station fire has receded, business owners still have a recession to worry about.

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david.sarno@latimes.com

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