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Creek Fire shakes up LA's equestrian community, area's longtime residents

Vicki and Don Ecker were forced to flee their Kagel Canyon home Tuesday morning to escape the Creek Fire.
Vicki and Don Ecker were forced to flee their Kagel Canyon home Tuesday morning to escape the Creek Fire.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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On Tuesday morning at 4:30, a fire truck drove down the Kagel Canyon street of Vicki and Don Ecker sounding the alarm: Evacuate immediately.

Strong winds were quickly spreading a fire through the canyon. Walking out his front door, Don was greeted by the sight of flames racing toward them from multiple directions.

“We were, in effect, circled,” he said.

The Eckers grabbed clothes, medication and their two dogs. They left so quickly that Don didn't have time to put on his prosthetic leg. He made it to the driveway on crutches and threw the leg into the back of their car.

The couple then joined tens of thousands forced to leave their homes above the 210 Freeway as part of mandatory evacuations brought on by a blaze that had consumed more than 11,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon.

A police officer at the Creek Fire command post at the Hansen Dam recreation complex.
A police officer at the Creek Fire command post at the Hansen Dam recreation complex.
Josie Huang/KPCC

At a 4 p.m. news conference, officials reported that the blaze called the Creek Fire was still zero percent contained. Thirty structures in the area had been destroyed, although there were no reports of serious injuries. Approximately 2,500 homes had been evacuated and 150,000 residents were affected by the fire, officials estimated.

The blaze struck in the heart of L.A.’s equestrian community that encompasses Lakeview Terrace, Sylmar and Shadow Hills. Hundreds of horses are kept in ranches and stables here, thanks to an equine tradition long supported by the area's trail system. 

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Authorities warned Angelenos to avoid the smoky area. But locals continued to lead their horses through the thick smoke to get them to stables away from the fire. Deirdre Somers of Sunland volunteered to watch a dozen horses at a place where she stables her own animal. She had been standing outside in the acrid air for over two hours to make sure the horses stayed calm.

"We’ve had a lot of kicking and bucking and screaming and panicking," Somers said. "They’re terrified."

Wearing a respirator, Somers said she wasn't overly concerned for herself.

"Sadly, I think we’re all used to fires in this community," Somers said. "It’s a difficult thing to be by the hills, but it’s also a blessing in many ways." As the Creek Fire whipped up dirt and ash outside the Ranch Side Café in Lake View Terrace, the Eckers sought refuge inside along with other evacuees watching the fire coverage on TV. 

Deirdre Somers of Sunland volunteered to stay with horses at a Valley View Vaulting stables in Lake View Terrace.
Deirdre Somers of Sunland volunteered to stay with horses at a Valley View Vaulting stables in Lake View Terrace.
Josie Huang/KPCC

The area's trails and vistas have always been attractive to those who live in community. But the hills are losing their charm for the couple.

They love their home of 24 years, but Don Ecker said this is the second time his home has been under serious threat of fire. The couple had experienced this before — in 2008, when the Marek fire scorched nearly 5,000 acres.

"You see it on TV and you don’t ever think it’s going to happen to you," Vicki Ecker said. "But we’ve known, ever since 2008, that it could happen at any time. The winds here are wild. It gets hot, you know?"

Locals watch fire coverage at the Ranch Side Cafe in Lake View Terrace.
Locals watch fire coverage at the Ranch Side Cafe in Lake View Terrace.
Josie Huang/KPCC

But her husband said the fire threats and California's high taxes have got him thinking. The Creek Fire may be the last straw. 

"I’m thinking about putting our place up for sale and moving out of state," he said.

All he needs now is to see if his house is still standing.