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Cabin owners anxiously await word on rebuilding wooded getaways

Residents of lodges on federal land need fire risk assessments before they can return to their secluded sanctuaries after the Station fire.

September 09, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

Becky Kassouf and her husband lived in near seclusion only 15 minutes off the 210 Freeway, tucked along a pine-lush stream in a traffic-free, smog-free nook of Los Angeles County that even an Oregonian would envy. All for roughly $350 per year.

Long before the Station fire destroyed their Big Tujunga Canyon cabin, the couple knew they had a rare deal.

"It was a beautiful, wonderful thing," said Kassouf, 57.

Theirs was one of 26 cabins built by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s that burned Aug. 29 when the massive Station fired roared westward. Now, residents fear they will be unable to recover their unique sanctuary.

"It was a well-kept secret," said Kassouf, who bought a cabin in La Paloma, a hamlet off Big Tujunga Canyon Road for $39,000 in 1993 from the Forest Service. "If you owned one, it was usually because it was in your family for a long time."

In the forest, the Kassoufs are known as "permittees," a select few who own cabins on national forest land. There are 49 permittees in Big Tujunga Canyon. The Forest Service, which acts as a landlord over the housing, has authority over the permits.

The decades-old lodges were originally intended as recreational second homes, but some residents quietly live in them year-round -- a cheaper alternative to urban living, a permanent refuge from city life. They build porches, add above-ground pools and deck roofs with satellite dishes. There are more than 6,300 permit-issued cabins in California.

There are about 80 lodges in Santa Anita Canyon and more in Millard Canyon north of Altadena. Officials on Tuesday were evaluating the fire danger in those areas.

U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Michael McIntyre said park officials plan to gather permittees and discuss rebuilding. Fire officials still need to make a final assessment on the damages.

"People right now are still in shock; they might not be thinking that far ahead," he said. "But some will be allowed to rebuild if they meet the criteria."

Any new housing would have to meet current zoning and building codes and would be subject to an array of government and environmental reviews from the U.S. Forest Service, Los Angeles County and fire authorities.

If officials decide that it is not safe to rebuild in the same Big Tujunga Canyon location, the forest service may offer residents a replacement location to rebuild, said Nathan Judy, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Officials with the Forest Service believe cabins were first offered for sale on a permit basis in the 1930s, in part to encourage people to enjoy nature parks, and also to help rangers watch over the land. The permits, which must be periodically renewed, ban most owners from turning cabins into permanent residences, but it does not specify how long permittees can occupy the homes.

Aside from property taxes, residents also pay permit costs, which can be $150 to $500 or more annually, depending on the value of the cabin. The value of the structures in Big Tujunga average about $200,000.

Many owners fiercely preserve their rural abodes. They clear brush off the land, pick up after day campers, form permittee associations and swiftly unite with other cabin owners when fires and floods strike.

There are those who move in and soon find they can't handle the isolation and wilderness -- snakes, bears and mountain lions. Amenities are scarce, and permittees often rely on tanks for water and propane, dial-up Internet and telephone land lines.

In Santa Anita Canyon, a short drive from the Santa Anita Avenue exit on the 210 Freeway, conditions get rougher. The cabins there date to the 1920s, and lodge owners rely on a pack station as a place to park their cars and use the telephone.

The residents, a mix of retirees, single people and families, hike nearly an hour to reach their cabins, hauling furniture and other heavy belongings on donkeys. They filter water from a nearby stream and use outhouses.

Others tire of keeping up with stiff government preservation standards and sell.

Homes must blend with nature, no additions can be made and in some cases, bare necessities such as indoor sinks are forbidden.

Though most issues are quickly resolved, tensions are common between permittees and park officials.

In 1988, Mark Moore, who lived in a two-bedroom cabin in La Paloma, took the forest service to federal court and won after he was barred from placing a satellite dish and ham radio equipment on his cabin roof.

"We get charged taxes," Moore said. "That means you don't get to tell us what to do or when to do it."

On Thursday, Arlen Farajian and his wife, Beth, of Arcadia worried as they waited to see if the cabin they have owned for 42 years in Santa Anita Canyon had survived the fire. The president of the Big Santa Anita Permittees Cabin Assn. took calls all week from other concerned cabin owners. Many are professionals like Farajian -- retired rocket scientists, lawyers and doctors -- who cherish their 300- to 400-square-foot getaways.

"My wife and I often joke that if we ever get a divorce, we won't fight over our 5,000-square-foot house in the city," Farajian said. "We will fight over our little house in the forest."

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esmeralda.bermudez @latimes.com

Times staff writers Jason Felch and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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