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An indelible mark

A year ago this week, a bevy of wildfires scorched our valley

Posted: October 18, 2008 7:41 p.m.
Updated: December 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An SUV races from the scene of one of many wildfires that left foothills blackened and destroyed personal property in the Santa Clarita Valley a year ago this week.

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It seemed apocalyptic.

A year ago, fire trucks raced across the Santa Clarita Valley. Helicopters and air tankers strafed in, dropping water and bright red retardant.

And smoke billowed thickly into the sky.

The 2007 fires left an indelible mark in SCV history.

With two fires burning just over the hills from Santa Clarita Valley last week, the memories of the 2007 fires seemed that much fresher, said Luke Claus, assistant fire chief for Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion 6. But last week’s Sesnon and Marek fires never made it to the SCV.

On Oct. 21, 2007, a brush fire near Templin Highway sparked the Ranch Fire, the first in what would be a week-long battle against blazes.

The Ranch Fire was mostly limited to Angeles National Forest, scorching 55,756 acres, but flames consumed 14 boats at Lake Piru, one home and eight outbuildings.

The fire was the opening salvo. Two other fires struck closer, taking homes and stealing peace of mind.
A 9-year-old boy playing with matches ignited the Buckweed Fire, which swallowed 38,356 acres, 15 homes and 17 outbuildings.

Lombardi Ranch hit
The fire ripped through the popular Lombardi Ranch.

Ranch owner Bob Lombardi’s hands were black with soot, and harsh winds made his eyes water as he picked through the charred rubble.

“We lost the house my daughter lived in. We lost three outbuildings and we lost all our Halloween attractions,” he said, pointing to what was once a tool shed, a work shop and a shed to house his wife’s Christmas ornaments.

All around him, as he spoke, were the piles of smoldering black rubble where attractions had been: His hot dog stand, selling booths, an antique fire engine.

“My wife and I started here in 1966,” he said, adding that 15 years ago he started running the ranch as the autumn attraction.

The fire whipped through his ranch so quickly that mazes made of hay bales burned, leaving their original pattern on the ground.

Eerily, thousands of pumpkins appeared untouched by the fire. Lombardi picked up a pumpkin and revealed the charred straw underneath it.

A house-high pyramid built of hay bales burned to the ground. What bothers him most, however, is to have lost his childhood home.

So many fires
Claus ran a strike team during the 2007 wild fires. He just finished working on the Canyon Fire in Malibu when he was called to Buckweed Fire for structure protection.

“The thing about the 2007 fires that was so difficult was the number of fires and getting enough resources to each fire,” he said.

With fire crews stretched thin, getting in front of the Buckweed Fire was difficult, Claus said.

Lombardi’s house at the top of the hill overlooking the ranch attraction survived the fire. The house just below it — the one he grew up in as a child and which served now as home for his daughter, Julia, burned in the time it took him to pick up a hose and water down his house. He turned around and saw his daughter’s house engulfed in flames.

“There’s a lot of memories in that house,” he said quietly. “It’s the one I grew up in. It’s more about the memories than anything else.”

Lombardi said his daughter, now homeless, managed to rescue “some tools and a lot of photos,” adding that he just painted the house.

Stevenson Ranch hit
The Magic Fire, which began Oct. 23 and burned 2,824 acres, is blamed on a welding accident, a Fire Department spokesman said.

The blaze prompted mandatory evacuations of the Stevenson Ranch and West Ridge cul-de-sac overlooking the slopes, said Chief Mike Hansen of the Torrance Fire Department.

Within three hours the blaze swelled to nearly 1,000 acres. As the fire spread toward the West Ridge area, traffic on The Old Road was nearly at a standstill.

Residents ran down the sidewalks to and from their homes along The Old Road as SuperScoopers and helicopters dropped so close to the homes that residents were sprayed as if it were raining.

About 200 firefighters from as far away as Oregon worked to fight the Magic Fire, Hansen said.

“We’re calling firefighters from all over,” Mike Hansen said. “All county resources are already being used.”
“The terrain is going to pose some trouble, but it’s mostly the wind,” said Inspector Sam Padilla of the county Fire Department. “The wind is pushing real hard and that’s what we’re mostly concerned with.”

Jay Montalvo, who lives on Flemming Place overlooking a canyon in Stevenson Ranch, hosed down his back yard as he watched the flames lick the hillside less than 700 feet from his home.  “Literally five minutes later, the fire was coming up by my back door,” he said.

Lessons learned

The scorched earth and burned homes drove home a lesson for Claus. “The biggest thing that came out of the 2007 fires was our ability and our need to cooperate,” he said.

Fire, police and Caltrans work together to get people out of the way and get resources in affected areas to fight fires, Claus said.

Claus and other fire officials also saw a change in public response to air drops on small brush fires.
Now when the big guns roll out people know why fire officials are dumping copious amounts of water on a brush fire.

“We put as much people and equipment on a fire as we can so little fires don’t become big ones,” he said.

Signal writers Jim Holt and Katie Geyer contributed to this story.

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