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Lake communities rebuild after Powerhouse Fire

People in communities affected by fire continue to seek help

Posted: July 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Chester Wilcox, a former resident of Lake Hughes, pauses as he walks through the property on which he used to live on Lake Hughes Road on Thursday. Photo by Jonathan Pobre/The Signal

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Chester “Chet” Wilcox knows what it’s like to lose everything.

For years he lived in a trailer in Lake Hughes, renting a modest chunk of land in the small, tight-knit community.

It may not have been much, but it was home for the Navy veteran.

But then the Powerhouse Fire came.

In an instant the place he called home, and the life he had built for himself there, was gone as the fast-moving wildfire roared through Lake Hughes.

“This is the first time I’ve been back here,” he said last week, his eyes scanning where his home once stood. “And it will probably be the last.”

For now, he is living in an apartment in Lancaster, scratching out a living while hoping for a bed to open up at The William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home of California in Lancaster.

But even getting that far took some help.

Church efforts

The Powerhouse Fire — so named for its point of origin near a powerhouse on San Francisquito Canyon Road — started May 30 and burned for more than a week, twisting and turning in the canyons north of the Santa Clarita Valley, charring 30,274 acres and destroying 30 homes, most in the community of Lake Hughes.

Since the blaze was finally tamed June 9, the local outreach coordinator for Grace Baptist Church of Santa Clarita, Steve Kilker, has made regular treks to Lake Hughes, compiling a list of those with losses.

He’s logged close to 1,400 miles driving there and back, he says.

“I thought I would pass around a business card and get some feedback on how to help,” Kilker said. “It kind of went from there.”

With every trip he takes, the list of those in need seems to grow.

Just last week, Kilker said he came across a man living near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve who had lost his home in the blaze.

It was Kilker who found Wilcox and helped get him get settled after the fire.

In the month since firefighters got a handle on the 30,274-acre Powerhouse Fire, Grace Baptist has given more than $11,000 in aid to the fire’s victims, Kilker said.

Helping themselves

Vonnie McCullah, a local resident and squad leader for the Community Emergency Response Team, remembers the fire well.

“It was pretty chaotic,” she recalled as she sat in the Rock Inn in Lake Hughes. “There was a clear sky one moment then all of a sudden it was black from all the smoke.”

McCullah pulled out a topographical map, displaying the general area of Lake Hughes and Green Valley.

“The first responders were mostly from Palmdale and Lancaster, but the next day they started to come from all over,” she said, referring to the firefighting and law-enforcement personnel who arrived to deal with the blaze. “Most of them came with a topographical guide like this, and that’s just not going to work.”

Many of the maps emergency responders brought with them didn’t show the pockets of habitation, the small communities — and where nobody lived.

Others had maps that were out of date.

“There were people coming in from all over the area,” said Robin Kennard, a local resident and area commander for the Community Emergency Response Team. “Some of them couldn’t even find the command post, let alone the streets out here.”

“It’s very common for us citizens to show the deputies where to go,” he added.

As the fire raged, McCullah and Kennard worked together to create and distribute more comprehensive maps.

“We wanted to make sure everyone who needed to get out got out,” she said.

Kennard recalled how he, too, found houses he didn’t know existed while helping with evacuations.

“I went down a road and found a house I didn’t know was even there,” he said.

Kennard said it’s situations like the Powerhouse Fire that show why community members need to be prepared and trained to help in emergency situations.

“There’s a lot of local knowledge that can be tapped into if there’s an emergency,” Kennard said. “We could always use more local involvement.”

Advice

Those who lived through the Powerhouse Fire say they have plenty of advice to share for those finding themselves in a similar situation.

“Unless you have a plan, and you practice your plan, you don’t know what to do when the time comes,” said Green Valley resident Bob Waidner.

Waidner said he and his family had to evacuate twice during the Powerhouse Fire — once away from Green Valley and once when the fire began heading into Lancaster

Valerie Waidner said the family worked to make electronic copies of all of their important documents, allowing them to evacuate without lugging boxes full of papers.

“If you don’t need it, don’t keep it,” she said.

To Betty Young with the Fire Safe Council for the area, the fire underscores one of the most common ways to reduce fire damage: clearing brush to maintain defensible space around houses and structures.

“I do believe if you get that space it will help firefighters save your home,” she said.

Community feeling

Even now, anyone driving through the area sees testaments to the gratitude the members of these communities feel.

Signs expressing thanks to firefighters, calling the first-responders heroes, are still proudly hung on fences or windows.

Those in the community say they are happy to have each other to lean on, as well.

“This is a place where neighbor helps neighbor, friend helps friend,” Kennard said. “And I think one of the things we value most here is that sense of community.”

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