Parks, Forests Closed as Hot Spots Remain
By Pearl Obispo
Signal Staff Writer | Friday, October 31, 2003
As officials assessed the hot spots throughout the local hillsides Thursday, the parks and historic properties on Santa Clarita's outskirts remained closed.
Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, credited the hard work of several agencies for saving many of the Conservancy's structures.
"I was just so impressed with the extraordinary drive, valor and resistance of the city, county, the outside (fire) agencies, and Conservancy crews who helped save our own park buildings," Skei said. "We all have undying gratitude to the strike teams."
Skei, who was on her way to assess the last of the controlled burns at Towsley Canyon on Thursday, said she could not believe the structures of Mentryville, a 1,500-acre state historic park on Pico Canyon Road, withstood the firestorm.
"We're talking about turn-of-the-century buildings and a funnel (of fire) coming straight down toward them," she said. "I would call it a miracle."
It's a different story, she said, for the Santa Clarita Woodlands.
"I fear that the Santa Clarita Woodlands is going to look very different," Skei said of the 4,000-acre park. "Once the fires are completely out, I'm very interested to see the extent of the loss of the forest."
As for Towsley Canyon, a shed on the 800-acre property — west of Interstate 5 and south of the Sunset Pointe community — was the only structure consumed by the blaze.
Skei said a large number of Conservancy staff members will continue working with the various agencies protecting structures and helping douse the hot spots.
Mentryville, the Santa Clarita Woodlands and Towsley Canyon — as well as all Angeles National Forest lands — will remain closed until further notice.
Seasoned firefighters called the blaze that nearly engulfed the 125-year-old historic oil town of Mentryville on Tuesday a "career fire."
Thursday afternoon, they got to see what they saved.
"I brought my guys back up here to see that their efforts paid off," said Chief Fred Wyckoff of the Shasta Lake Fire Protection District.
Shasta Fire Capt. Rick Sherman stood at the head of the town with about two dozen others who had joined him in the fight. They exchanged photographs and stories of the intense battle.
The firefighters stood their ground and managed to save every structure in the town — now part of a state park — even as the fire cut off their retreat. Survivors of the onslaught included the 13-room Victorian mansion that had been built in the 1890s for the oil field superintendent; the 1885 Felton Schoolhouse, a barn, garage and various structures used in films.
"There was fire on all four sides. We had to ride it out right here," Sherman said. "We had to come back up here today."
Wyckoff said a heat sensor carried by a firefighter during the blaze recorded a high temperature of more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
"I asked (the strike teams) if any one of them had ever seen this much fire in one place, and none of them raised their hands," Wyckoff said.
Robert Reiss, a park facilities specialist for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, lives and works in Mentryville with his family. He was perhaps the most worried when the fire began its run through Pico Canyon.
"I'll never forget (Tuesday) until I die," Reiss said. "(Mentryville has) been here since the 1870s. I didn't want to see it go now."
The firefighters were moved by Reiss' happiness that the town had been saved.
"His eyes were just as big as softballs," Sherman said. "He started hugging us."
Reiss' family met the firefighters who saved their home and town.
"This made the trip all worth it," said Shasta Fire Capt. Jesse Winnen.
Crews even managed to save structures at Johnson Park, including a large wooden replica oil derrick, a quarter-mile deeper in the canyon.
"I'm so glad to hear (the derrick) was saved, because (my husband) worked so hard on that," said Carol Lagasse, who lived in Mentryville from 1967 to 1994. Her husband, Frenchy, a Standard Oil Co. employee, built the derrick in 1956 to mark the retirement of another Mentryville oil worker, Bill Cochems.
The extent of the support from the Stevenson Ranch community Thursday surprised the fire crews. They said they received donuts, water and supplies from citizens in the community, and from Wal-Mart.
"It's really overwhelming," Sherman said. "People were coming up and hugging us in parking lots."
But Shasta Fire Chief Kevin McKinley seemed disappointed.
"I didn't get any hugs," he joked.
Reiss invited the crews to return to Mentryville any time and promised them hospitality.
The visit to Mentryville proved to be only a short rest in the grueling week that the fire had put them through.
Reiss, his family and co-workers saluted the engines as they left Mentryville.
"The crews get tired," said Ventura County Fire information officer John Wade. "A lot of these people have been fighting this fire since it started."
Nevertheless, Shasta County fire strike teams will leave Santa Clarita today to protect structures threatened by the 272,318-acre San Diego fire —the largest blaze in California history, which has already claimed the life of one firefighter.