Three years ago the Station Fire destroyed my neighborhood.
I remember it as if it all happened five minutes ago. I got up just after sunrise, went out to my back yard and looked to the East, toward Grizzly Flats, the Angeles Crest Highway, and the plume of smoke that had dominated my every thought for days.
The fire had started on August 26 near a ranger station on the Crest, less than ten miles away as the crow flies. By day the smoke rose, staining the sky with its brownish-gray plume. By night we could see the glow of the fire, sitting like a baleful hell-beast, waiting to pounce. For days the news talked about the threat the fire posed for JPL and Mt. Wilson, and for days the residents of Big Tujunga Canyon and other parts of the Angeles watched and waited, hoping that the fire would be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly.
The morning of August 29 some of us finally saw signs of a proactive response. The Unified Incident Command began deploying fire engines in the Vogel Flats neighborhoods, and we were told they were going to prepare for structure protection in case the fire changed direction and came our way. But the fire crews never laid a single hose, nor did they connect to any of the water supplies we had available. The plume of smoke we had watched for three days had created a cloud that grew so tall that ice crystals formed on the top. As the fire crews were just beginning to get oriented, the layer of ice crystals became too heavy for the cloud to keep them aloft. The layer broke and the ice came crashing down, pushing the hot air and smoke down as well. The resultant winds fanned the flames, turning a sedate fire into a raging inferno that was beyond belief, and impossible to control.
When the cloud burst and the fire exploded, the fire crews left. So did the LA County Sheriffs. I was never told to evacuate. All the people who were supposed to let us know just disappeared. The only fire crew that remained was the regular crew at USFS Station 13, and they stayed through it all.
When the fire crews started taking off, one of the Vogel residents, Julius Goff, realized that no one was telling the people at the end of Stonyvale what was going on. He jumped on his quad-runner, rode down to where our neighbors were packing up and told them to stop packing and just leave. Jules was so intent on getting others out that he waited too long himself. He and another neighbor wound up trapped by the fire and only survived by taking shelter in a hot tub. Later, then-governor Schwarzenegger would criticize Jules for waiting so long, not knowing, and probably not caring, that if it had not been for Julius the body count for the Station Fire would likely have been over twenty, not just two.
I could go on, describing the chaos, the fear, the mind-numbing horror as the fire swept down and through the canyon, incinerating everything in its path, but no words can capture what it was like. I will say that while running for your life is great and exciting in the movies, in real life it sucks. Big time. I hope I never have to go through anything like that again. Ever.
And the aftermath of the fire has been an endless ordeal. First there was the awfulness of not knowing how much had been lost. Then there was the awfulness of discovering, bit by bit, just how wanton the destruction was, and how little remained. Some of us lost everything. Others were miraculously spared. The fire was merciless to so many that even those of us who did not lose our homes have had to face the devastation every day, surrounded as we are by the ruins of a community and the stony skeletons that once were homes.
As the years have passed the dream of rebuilding has all but withered. So many bureaucracies are involved in the process, each pointing fingers at the others, that even the most determined residents are giving up hope. It’s too hard. And I think that’s just the way the Forest Service brass wants it. They’ve never liked us residents for a dozen reasons I will not discuss here.
It’s a shame. It’s a tragedy. And the feeling of powerlessness can lead so easily to despair.
As the anniversary of the fire has drawn closer I have been called by the usual collection of reporters, each asking for a pithy statement they can use in an article, video spot or podcast. And each time I talk to them I relive the past three years, comparing what was before with what remains, remembering who I was then, and trying to figure out who I have become. None of us is the same. Some of us still have nightmares every time we sleep, and I have long since lost count of how many nights I have wept in the darkness, hiding my pain and trying to find the strength to go on.
Not all of it is bad, though. I have made good friends and grown closer to my neighbors than I ever was before. I have discovered strengths I never dreamed I had. But it has not been easy, by any stretch.
Anniversaries, hard as they may be to bear, give us a chance to revisit events that have changed our lives. Hopefully each year lets us discover how far we have come, how much we have healed, and gives us new hope for moving forward in our lives, wherever our paths may lead us. When we gather together we have a chance to remember together, openly and without fear that we will be told we are overreacting. How could anyone else understand what it was like? They have no frame of reference. They have not seen what we have seen. But we know. And we can come together again with others who have been touched by the fire, and who have survived it, however well or poorly. My hope for you is that this anniversary finds you well, and stronger than ever before.
Wherever you are, whatever you choose to do to remember this anniversary, I hope that you find healing and a growing awareness of your own strength and resilience. May we all rise from the ashes, better and stronger than we were before.