La Verne Magazine
Fighting to Save Their World
by Alexis Lahr
photography by Liz Lucsko
Painfully beautiful, the Williams fire swept through San Dimas Canyon Sept.
23, 2002, destroying more than 38,000 acres before being stopped just short
of Mt. Baldy Village.
In a matter of minutes, lives changed forever. Memories, dreams and
plans for the future melted away. It was more than just "stuff"
that was lost. It was years of hard work; It was a way of life. In only
a few minutes, San Dimas Canyon changed.
In September 2002, the Williams wildfire blazed through the canyon,
leaving its mark on the lives of the residents. More than 75 percent of
the homes in the canyon were destroyed, and more than 38,000 acres burned.
Though the fire was fully contained nearly one week after it began, evidence
of it would remain for months-even years. The impact on the residents of
the canyon surpasses boundaries of days and weeks. For some residents, their
entire way of life has been changed forever. In the weeks after the fire,
telephone poles blocked roads, and power lines dangled in trees. The air
smelled scorched, and dust filled every breath. Fallen trees lay everywhere,
and the leaves on those trees still standing were curled and black from
the heat. Once treasured homes were reduced to smoldering piles of twisted
metal and ash. Deep piles of dirt formed in the canyon, narrowing roads
and nearly burying homes.
The Fight to Save the Canyon
Although San Dimas Canyon was destroyed, it did not fall easily. There
was a fight to save the canyon and the historic way of life it represents.
Reiner Kruger, facility manager at Monrovia Nursery, loved the solitude
and peacefulness of San Dimas Canyon. Kruger, 49, lived in the main fork
with his six-year-old daughter, who spent every other week with him. Kruger
poured 10 years of hard work into his home. He even made triple house payments
at times and finally paid it off on Sept. 1, 2002. Little did he know that
in just three weeks, it would be reduced to a pile of ashes.
When Kruger woke up that Monday morning, he saw a huge column of smoke
overhead and knew he would not be going to work that day. Instead, he spent
the day raking leaves and performing fire clearance around his home. Dressed
in shorts and sandals and equipped with a 150-foot fire hose, fire pump
and a nearby hydrant, he thought he was ready. Firefighters began to appear
in the canyon that morning and advised Kruger to evacuate. He had fought
three other fires in his life and figured this "was not going to be
a big deal." Anticipating a slow burning fire, he collected a few pictures
and papers, but did not think about packing. It was not until 3 p.m. that
Kruger saw the first flames at the top of the ridge. The air became smoky,
but an eerie calm prevailed. Kruger walked home from a visit with his neighbor
two hours later and transferred the power in his house to run off a small
generator, just as the power was shut down. It was only a matter of time
before the monster appeared in his front yard.
Firemen discovered that the water pressure in the hydrant was quickly
dropping, and they were told to pull back. Kruger again was advised to evacuate,
but he felt he would be OK and decided to stay.
Now clothed in boots, jeans, goggles and a hard hat, he used garden
hoses to fill garbage bags with water and wet down his house. "It was
deadly calm," he describes, when suddenly a blast of heat came from
the canyon. Embers that looked like "giant hail stones on fire,"
began falling everywhere. The grass spontaneously burst into flames, and
Kruger moved quickly to put out the spot fires. He says it reminded him
of an old "I Love Lucy" episode involving an out of control conveyer
belt. Just when he put one fire out, another flared up. Finally, it became
more than he could handle. A sequoia tree in his front yard caught on fire
and ignited an inflatable boat, stored next to it. "It smelled like
50 tires burning," Kruger remembers.
His neighbor's porch caught on fire, and the heat began to cook the
side of Kruger's house. He tried to wet down his house, but there was not
enough water pressure. The wind spread the flames to his house, and he could
hardly breathe. Thinking he could catch his breath inside his burning home,
Kruger ran through the thick black smoke. He then realized his pickup truck,
which was his only means to escape the flames, was so close to the fire
that the tail lights were beginning to melt into a sticky ooze. Blinded
by the thick smoke, he took a deep breath, ran out the back door and jumped
into his truck, forgetting the few possessions he had packed. Kruger blindly
drove down his narrow driveway and parked in a clearing farther down the
canyon. With the whole canyon on fire, any possible escape route now was
About 20 minutes passed, and Kruger decided it had died down enough
for him to go back to his house. He was forced to stop his truck 50 feet
from his house because a fallen tree blocked the road. His curiosity got
the best of him, and he hiked the rest of the way there. He got as close
as he could, and was even able to peer into his basement, when a tree fell
and nearly hit him. Kruger felt the hair on his arms curl and heard something
explode in his garage. He knew it was time to get out of there, so he drove
back to the clearing and watched the remaining homes burn. It was not the
flames that scared Kruger, but the heat and the air. "It was like sticking
your head in the oven and taking a breath," he says. "I figured
I would get scorched, but I didn't think I was going to die," he adds.
The fight for his house was not about money or materialism. It was about
saving the home he had poured 10 years into. It was about saving belongings
he had owned for years "family things that are supposed to be
passed down to your kids," he says sadly. "I can sleep at night
and know I did the best I could. It hurts, and you lose a lot, but you can
always get more," he adds.
Kruger was not alone in his desperate attempt to fight the fire. Dana
Brown, president of the San Dimas Canyon Improvement Association, also tried
to save his home, but he was held back by the fire department from even
getting to it in time. Brown, 53, lived on the west fork of San Dimas Canyon
for 27 years in a house he built by hand. This is his third year as president
of the SDCIA, which has been the area's homeowners group for 76 years.
Brown says he loves the serenity of the canyon. "You can live in
the woods in peace and quiet and still work in the city. You get the best
of both worlds." Like most mountain residents, Brown was aware of the
risk of forest fires but was not worried. "In the back of your mind,
there is always that chance, and you prepare yourself, but you really don't
think it's going to happen to you," he says.
One Monday in September it happened. Like Kruger, Brown spent most of
the day clearing anything that could burn, watering down the hillside and
running the sprinklers. He had a 1,500-gallon water tank in front of his
house, and he too felt prepared to fight the fire. Firefighters were set
up around the cabins for most of the day.
Around 6:30 that evening, firemen started spraying the houses with six
inches of white foam to protect them from burning. Brown opened a tank holding
10,000 gallons of water reserved for fires. The water lasted a few hours,
but the firemen were now in the dark with a limited water supply. They began
backing their trucks out of the narrow road as the fire came down the sides
of the canyon, across the top of the ridge and behind his house.
"It was wild looking," Brown remembers. He describes seeing
100-foot flames on three sides and seeing "big chunks of burning debris
bouncing down the mountain." Despite this, he was not scared. "Being
scared gets in the way of what you have to do," he laughs. Meanwhile,
Brown moved a half-mile down to the mouth of the canyon. He planned to wait
until the fire burned down to him, and then get behind it to go back to
his home. He knew his home had a chance to survive the initial fire, but
would not stand up against the embers that would smolder and catch things
on fire later that night.
Brown hiked to a spot 100 yards from his home, when two firemen spotted
him. He was threatened with arrest if he went any farther. Brown brushed
off the threats, so the firemen threw him in a fire department Suburban,
sat on him and drove out of the canyon. He tried to sneak back into the
canyon three times throughout the night, but he was caught each time. The
next morning, Brown went to see his home and found out that it had burned
down around midnight. "I sat down and said goodbye to it and told her
I'd be back," he says, almost in a whisper.
He was able to salvage two motorcycles from his garage and a few tools.
He had taken both of his trucks out of the canyon before the fire, as well
as a couple of guitars, two pairs of Levi jeans and three T-shirts. He had
just spent $10,000 remodeling his dining room and kitchen and was working
on laying a marble floor. A stack of 200 marble tiles was visible in the
pile of melted, broken, scorched rubble. "That was my world,"
he says. "Everything I wanted was there. When you get to be my age,
and you haven't moved in 30 years, you get quite a collection."
"A lot of people don't realize these are not just cabins; these
are homes," Kruger notes. "I want people to know what we had up
there." Kruger was one of the few San Dimas Canyon residents with fire
insurance, but it did not help him entirely. He says he was significantly
underinsured and lost nearly $150,000. Brown says only about 10 percent
of the canyon residents had fire insurance, simply because most could not
afford it. He adds that many people could not even get fire insurance because
no new policies were being written due to the drought. "For all practical
purposes, fire insurance was too expensive and unavailable," he claims.
Brown is still convinced that he could have saved his home if he had
been able to go back into the canyon, but he realizes the firemen were just
doing their job. He says that although most residents praised the fire department,
they did not like being threatened with arrest if they did not evacuate.
They feel the decision to evacuate should be a personal one. Some residents
have even decided to file lawsuits.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion chief Bill Niccum offers
a different perspective. Niccum, who has been a firefighter for 26 years,
is based at Fire Station 64 in San Dimas. He was assigned to structure protection
in the west fork of the canyon during the Williams fire. Niccum says evacuations
are enforced "for the safety of the public and the firefighters."
Once a situation becomes an emergency, roads can become blocked, and it
can be hard to get everyone out quickly and safely, he adds.
Mount Baldy homeowner Harvey Good agrees with Niccum. Good was a volunteer
firefighter for the Mount Baldy Fire Department for 30 years. He spent 21
years as captain and six as chief. Good now assists with dispatch and photography.
He feels that people who refuse to evacuate not only endanger themselves,
but also the lives of the firemen who attempt to save them. "Many people
don't realize what it is like in a fire when it actually gets into a community
and homes are starting to burn. The smoke is awful. You get sick,"
says Good, who stayed at Mount Baldy during the evacuation. "Many people
can easily be overcome."
Some residents believe changes need to be made to prevent similar wildfire
incidents. Brown feels there needs to be "a little more active forest
management. We have 50 years of growth sitting because nobody is allow-ed
to touch it." He feels that controlled burns might be a possible solution.
Kruger is upset too that the dam was repeatedly drained for repairs.
Had there been water in it, the turnaround time for helicopters making water
drops could have been reduced. This, combined with the fifth year of below
average rainfall, produced horrible fire conditions. "That has to be
one of the worst possible situations to fight a fire," Good says.
Niccum says there were some significant obstacles to battling the fire.
Some of the cabins had leaves on the roof, as well as "minimal brush
clearance." The canyon was a full canopy, meaning trees covered the
whole canyon and helped drop fire onto homes. The power lines presented
overhead hazards, and the single narrow road into the canyon made for a
difficult escape. The narrow walls of the canyon contained the scorching
heat and lowered the humidity to less than 3 percent, Niccum adds. The conditions
were so bad during the fire that even firefighters were forced out of the
canyon. Niccum says a crew planned to do "structure aftercare,"
which involves putting out hot spots once a fire roars through, but because
of hazards such as landslides and dangling power lines, it was just too
dangerous. The narrowness of the canyon also made communication between
fire crews nearly impossible. "We didn't feel we could safely commit
our crews," Niccum says. "Everything was stacked against us."
Because of the severity of the Williams fire, a water-dropping helicopter
continued making runs after dark that Monday night. Flying the helicopter
in the dark is a rare occurrence, because of the extreme danger of limited
Niccum points out that many fire chiefs were called in to give statements
because so many structures were lost. Pictures of the canyon taken during
the fire showed just how bad the conditions were. This area "has some
of the best wild land firefighters and structure protection specialists
in the world," says Niccum, but "we only have what we're dealt.
[Firefighting] is a huge commitment, and we don't take it lightly. We put
ourselves at risk to protect people and property."
The presence of firefighters is evident in the rubble of San Dimas Canyon.
Long pieces of worn fire hose lay in the dirt around many cabins. Niccum
says firefighters only "cut lines" when they are forced to retreat,
which is an indication of how bad the fire was. "I think [the firefighters]
did everything they could in those circumstances," Good says. "They
put their lives in jeopardy to try to save people's homes and waited until
the last possible minute to get out and just barely got out with their own
lives." "They did a hell of a job. They really worked their tails
off," Brown agrees.
In addition to the property loss, the effects on the environment will
be felt for quite some time. Dan Merritt, vice president of the La Verne
Land Conservancy group and professor of zoology and environmental science
at the University of La Verne, has been involved with local environmental
issues for more than 30 years. He feels that it could be 25 to 50 years
before the canyon will recover its original look.
The rainy season will play a large role in determining how long the
recovery process will take. Adding rain to the already devastated canyon
will cause even greater landslides that could potentially bury the homes
that did not burn. According to Merritt, gentle rain will help new vegetation
grow, but too much rain too soon could cause major erosion that will affect
streambeds, reservoirs, animal habitats and potentially contaminate water
Many plants and animals adapt to survive fires, Merritt says, and some
plants even thrive under the effects of a fire. However, in cases such as
this, a fire can burn too hot over an extensive area and destroy entire
communities of plants and animals. He says once grasses and flowering plants
start to reappear, shrubs and small trees will gradually begin to grow,
and, given time, the environment will eventually heal on its own. "Fire
is a natural phenomenon," Merritt says. Many ecologists recommend "small-scale
prescribed burns" to reduce the accumulation of undergrowth. Failure
to do this can result in the intense large-scale burning that took place
in the Williams fire.
Back in the Canyon
After the fire, many San Dimas Canyon residents turned to Brown for
help and direction in repairing their lives and the canyon they call home.
"Those people elected me to do a job and look out for their interests.
To the ability I can do it, I'm going to do it. You can sit around and whine
about all the bad things that happened to you, but it doesn't change it.
So why not just try to focus on fixing it and get on with it," Brown
Getting on with it is not as easy as it may seem. The U.S. Forest Service
is unsure whether residents will be allowed to rebuild on their current
lots due to environmental issues and building codes. If rebuilding is not
possible, the Forest Service may relocate the residents to another area
within the forest, but not necessarily within the same canyon. Unfortunately,
this decision will not be made for months. Forest supervisor Jody Cook told
residents at a meeting held at Foothill Vineyard Church shortly after the
fire that the loss of this many cabins in a fire is "unprecedented."
"We need help and patience to get through this," she says. Other
U.S. Forest Service officials informed residents that they would consider
their input on the issue of rebuilding. "We realize this is tragic
and traumatic for everyone," adds district ranger Marty Dumpis. "The
Forest Service is trying to be more responsible, and it may not be to our
liking," Good says. "I think some of the things they have done
are probably best for the environment."
Merritt feels that building houses in the forest "forces a shift
of the energy and resources of firefighters from protecting the forest and
the watershed to protecting a few homes." He does not favor rebuilding
homes unless there is a "clear understanding that these sites would
be maintained in a way compatible with fire management practices."
Niccum, on the other hand, says he would like to see the residents rebuild
their homes. He recognizes that their lifestyle is special, and many of
them "lost their heritage and treasures that can't be replaced."
He too would like a better water system and more fire hazard reduction measures
to take place. The U.S. Forest Service is left to decide whether this will
be possible within this particular area of the canyon.
Regardless of the time frame, many residents already plan to rebuild,
even if they cannot have their original lot back. "I don't want to
see a way of life that's lasted for 75 years disappear," Brown says.
"I don't want to see it end on my watch." Kruger chose not to
disconnect his phone or electric service to his burned down home. "If
everyone quit, there would be no reason to set up new poles and wires. If
you don't try, you won't succeed."
In the mean time, residents are left to get on with their lives. Many
displaced residents have found temporary places to stay, but they just do
not feel like home. Brown was strongly hoping for government assistance
in the weeks after the fire. At that time he felt that "everyone got
up and made their speeches and went home. I honestly hope something comes
of it. Most people are getting almost nothing." Some help came at the
end of October, nearly a month after the fire. The cities of San Dimas,
La Verne and Glendora received emergency federal funding to repair hillsides
and deal with mud slides. Small Business Administration loans were also
available for those who qualified. Although the aid is helpful, many canyon
residents are still left waiting to find out if they can rebuild.
"Sometimes you try to do everything right, and it comes out wrong.
All you can do is try to do it right," Brown reflects. "We'll
put it back together better than it was."
Looking like a giant firefly, Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes were used to fight
the Williams wildfire. La Verne's Live Oak Reservoir supplied the water
for the helicopters.
Terry Jacobs, employee of the U.S. Forest Service, waits as mechanics
try to fix the water chutes on the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane. The dysfunctional
helicopter, grounded at Brackett airport, left only one Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane
to fight the wildfire Monday. Public health warnings were issued because
of the enormous amounts of smoke and ash in the air.