PICO CANYON — The calm before the firestorm:
A bird squawked above Mentryville, as if to sound some sort of alarm. Otherwise, the air was still Tuesday morning. Smoke wafted into the sky to the west, but overhead it was clear and blue.
That would change.
Firefighters from the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority were preparing for a seemingly distant battle — running lines of fire hose around the old wooden buildings, positioning them for the structure protection battle that, hopefully, would save the 19th-century oil town and state historic landmark.
The preparations had been going on for the past couple of days, then once all of the lines were in place, some of the MRCA firefighters stopped and rested in anticipation of the fire.
"Hurry up and wait," one of them said.
I wondered if that was all that might be needed. For a couple of days, the fire always seemed to linger several ridgelines away, and you couldn't help hoping that, somehow, the various agencies battling it would stop the flames from spreading to Pico Canyon, where the dense vegetation appeared ripe for fire.
* * *
The MRCA firefighters found out, with a jolt, that they would be leaving Mentryville, but not because of advancing flames.
They were being replaced.
As those in command of the multi-agency operation prepared for the battle, they determined the MRCA guys would be better assigned to defend Towsley Canyon Park. Other fire units, which had been fighting the blaze on the Simi Valley side over the past couple of days, would be brought into Pico Canyon.
"Damn!" one of them shouted.
They quickly began packing up their gear, including the hoses that had so carefully been laid out. Within minutes, most of them were off to Towsley, and the replacements were rolling in, from faraway places mostly ending in "ville" — Roseville, Placerville ... It was somehow fitting, I thought, that they would help defend Mentryville.
* * *
Several of us from The Signal took a walk up Pico Canyon to get a look at how close the fire was to Mentryville. I'm guessing it was about a mile and a half before we found out. We rounded a bend, and saw flames lapping at the brush along the walls of the canyon.
The first fire crew to drive past us was a two-truck contingent carrying a hand crew from Ventura County. They were mostly young, strapping lads in their 20s. They started attacking the brush aggressively, with chainsaws, moving the vegetation from one side of the dirt road to the other in preparation for "back fires" that would be set in an attempt to get the fire to burn out before crossing over to the south side of the road.
If it crossed, they said, the fire in all likelihood would run all the way down Pico Canyon.
They worked hard to prevent it. Being on a fire hand crew is a dirty, hot, back-breaking job. They worked relentlessly, several of them cutting away fuel while others heaved it to the other side of the dirt road. As they worked their way down the canyon, firefighters behind them set back fires. The back fires roared up and met the flames from the main fire, which had crawled over a ridge.
"(Expletive), that's hot," Signal photographer Bryan Kneiding said, shielding himself from a wall of flame.
Succinct, and accurate.
It got very hot, very fast — and the firefighters knew immediately when things had gone awry. The fire had leaped up a ravine and gotten out of control. It became clear the firefighters' hard work would be for naught, and that everyone there — journalists and firefighters alike — needed to evacuate.
"Let's get out now!" someone shouted. "I'm not kidding!"
There was an out-of-town fire department's sport utility vehicle blocking the road, with no one inside. I decided I'd try to move it to the side, so the other trucks could get past.
The door was locked.
Someone would either have to find the driver or break the window or ...
No time to figure it out. It was beginning to cook. We started to run down the road, and the guys from the Ventura County crew hollered at us to join them as they clambered onto their trucks. "Hop on!"
As we rode down the canyon on the hand crew's truck, they took a head count and talked about the conditions. "I was puking, dude," said Kevin Bart, a youthful-looking firefighter.
"Too bad (the back fire) didn't work," said Ventura Capt. Gary Monday. "That sucks."
Behind us, all of the other vehicles got rolling, too, and it seemed everyone got out safely. It was a bumpy, relieving ride —†and the guys in the back of the truck warned us to duck our heads to avoid getting clobbered by low-hanging trees.
We ran. And so did the fire.
* * *
Within a couple of minutes, we were in Mentryville. There was enough time for the hand crew to get a well-deserved break and a sandwich.
But not much more.
I lost track of time, but it wasn't long before a wall of flames came roiling down the canyon, apparently intent on devouring Mentryville. No joke: It's a miracle that they saved it.
* * *
I left Mentryville when it got too hot for comfort. As I hit the Southern Oaks neighborhood — which was next in the fire's path —†I came across MRCA volunteer ranger Jack Nelson, who was directing traffic. I told him it looked like they were well-prepared to protect the structures of Mentryville, which is such a valuable piece of our local history.
"Are the guys OK?" Nelson asked about his friends from the MRCA and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "That's what I worry about."
I didn't know.
* * *
It turned out everyone at Mentryville was OK — and so were the historic buildings. They fought the fire away from the buildings, and it continued on down the canyon toward its next target: Stevenson Ranch and one of its new, upscale subdivisions, Southern Oaks.
They were evacuating Royal Oaks Drive when I pulled up. I thought the Halloween signs in the neighborhood were ironic for this day. They read simply: "Boo!"
"Bye, firemen!" shouted a cheerful little girl, who looked to be about 6, from the back seat of a sport utility as her mom started to drive away. "Good luck!"
The firefighters there — including a genial group from Marin County — were confident, thanks to an excellent buffer of land that had been cleared of brush. "This is very defensible," said a captain from the Marin group.
Still, residents couldn't help worrying.
Royal Oaks Drive resident Phil Warrender said he planned to stay and wait it out as long as possible.
"My wife has different ideas," he said. "I'm real confident. Famous last words ... It doesn't mean I don't have any feeling in the pit of my stomach."
He had reason to be confident: The fire would skirt his street. As of this writing, the homes of Southern Oaks were spared — but the fire continued its march Tuesday night through the hills south of there, and there was no telling whether the Santa Clarita Valley would awaken to bad news today.
* * *
Just a few houses away from the end of the cul-de-sac where firefighters were preparing to fend off the oncoming brunt of the blaze, the Nesheim family was preparing to evacuate late Tuesday afternoon. There was no sign of activity at their next-door neighbor's house, but the neighbor's sprinklers were running.
Melissa Nesheim was in the garage, taking pictures of the drawings that had been made by her little girl. "She's worried that they're going to get Ćerased,'" Melissa said.
I neglected to ask Melissa how old her daughter is — when you sit at the editor's desk long enough, some of those reporting instincts get a little rusty.
But Melissa's garage wall looked like my refrigerator: Pictures made by young hands, lovingly hung on the wall in a parent's proud display. I choked up a bit at the thought that the little girl's drawings could go up in flames.
I wished Melissa and her husband luck as they prepared to leave their home, having no way of knowing that it would, thankfully, still be there when they came back.
"We'll be OK," she said. "God will protect us."
And so He did.
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