When the Station Fire ripped through Angeles National Forest, it burned dozens of homes in Big Tujunga Canyon and Vogel Flat too. Three years later, some of those homeowners say bureaucracy has slowed their return.
The house didn’t have cable TV. He couldn’t get a pizza delivered there. But Rob Driscoll says living in Vogel Flat has its charms.
“What we do have in the evenings are coyotes making noise, once in a while a bear, Tujunga Creek running through our backyard and and peace and quiet,” Driscoll said. “And stars. A lot of amenities that exist in that canyon don’t exist down below.”
Driscoll lost his house to the Station Fire; he and his wife live in a rental now, in Northridge. He says he’s spent countless hours and $55,000 on engineers, architects and other services just trying to gain the right to build his home back.
“There is no one, no one in L.A. County that can walk a homeowner through this and make it easy,” he said, frustration seeping from his voice.
The conflict points out the sometimes rocky relationship between those who live in the wildland-urban interface, and those who manage the public’s fire risk in that area.
Among other things, Driscoll objects to the county’s rule that each home on his street hold 12,000 gallons of water in tanks. “These are 9 foot in circumference, maybe 10, and 11 feet high. Two of ‘em, for L.A. County to have what they need,” he said.
But L.A. County deputy fire chief John Todd says updated regulations shouldn’t surprise people after a major fire. “Especially when you’re dealing with an older community — the fire codes have changed dramatically since those homes were originally built,” Todd said. “And they’ve changed several times.”
Todd said he understands Driscoll’s frustration. He insists the fire department wants to bring him and others back, safely.
“We have to be able to get in and help those people and support those people,” he said. “And we want to do everything we can when we’re rebuilding, to make sure that they won’t have to face this kind of situation again.”
L.A. has seen people and their hillside homes threatened often in the last century.
The first forester and fire chief in L.A. County was a man named Stuart Flintham. Trained at the Yale School of Forestry, he put in fire lookouts and fire lanes, but wildfire remained difficult to control.
Char Miller, who directs the environmental analysis program at Pomona College, knows a lot about Flintham. He says Flintham went up the hills to talk to them about their risk. “Basically to suggest, look, you are going to suffer,” Miller said. “You need to think through what your obligations to yourself and to your neighbors, whoever lives in that neighborhood, might be.”
Miller said pilots who honed skills in World War II brought aerial firefighting to Southern California in the 1950s. That practice has continued, and expanded. Miller said that, over 50 years, that’s sent a message that we control the landscape.
“This is a landscape we manage. … And it’s a landscape that’s, because of those things, open for development,” he said. “And in the end, there aren’t any signals that say you shouldn’t do this. All the signals seem to be green. You should move higher and farther into these canyons.”
Today, Big Tujunga Canyon still has a “neighborhood.” A cabin that once belonged to Bronwen Aker’s grandmother still stands, on federal land. Aker said her grandmother lived like a hermit. She did too. Now she’s part of a community whose identity was forged by fire and the aerial response to it by the U.S. Forest Service.
“For the most part, we feel we’ve been left on our own. And it’s hard,” Aker said. “That’s another reason we come together; we don’t have anyone else to turn to except each other.”
An email list now binds together Station Fire survivors separated by geography. And once a year — this Sunday, in fact — former and current residents will gather at Aker’s cabin for a barbecue.
“I want to give the members of the community an opportunity for us to come together in the canyon,” Aker said. That doesn’t happen often. “It’s a chance to share, to find out what’s going on, to commiserate. And the food’s good too.”
Two weeks ago, the Forest Service said it would use aerial firefighting at night. Too little, too late, say many of these residents and homeowners. Rob Driscoll allowed that he’s satisfied.
“I believe we’re wired up that we seek heights, we seek water, we seek depths, we seek nature, but we have to be exposed to it,” Driscoll said. “And once you fall in love, it’s hard to leave it.”
It would take different signals than Driscoll’s gotten from state and local authorities for him to do so. He said he’s confident he’ll get through the county’s bureaucracy eventually. When he does, he’ll stay put.