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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Aug 11, 2016
Park Superintendent Russ Kimura at the gates.
Park Superintendent Russ Kimura at the gates.
 

evelynevandersande_mugOn July 22, I saw a slender column of black smoke to the east.

Because I am one of the volunteers who are called if there is a fire evacuation at Placerita, I called the Nature Center to find out if the fire was close.

Frank Hoffman, recreation services supervisor, answered the phone. He told me all was well; that the fire was actually closer to his home, and that he asked his wife to take some precautions with his animals in case he would have to evacuate.

Little did we know then that this fire, which had started close to the 14 Freeway, would spread so drastically and burn 41,432 acres, destroy 19 structures and cause one death.

Many docents had to leave their own homes quickly, and we were all very much concerned for their safety. We were to find out later that the daughter of one of our docents evacuated to her father’s house, but her own home was one of those destroyed in the fire. Sad tragedies all over.

I will cover here only in broad strokes how the situation evolved at Placerita…

SandFirePlacerita03On July 23, it was clear the circumstances were changing. Sand Canyon and Placerita Canyon roads were closed, so only official help could be called for rescue. Two trucks from the Whittier Narrows Nature Center came to take all of our animals to Vasquez Rocks for protection.

They had heard of our precarious situation and came from all the way across the 210 Freeway, to offer their help. At the time, the 14 Freeway was crowded due to all of the evacuations, and Sand Canyon was at a standstill. So this help was a real blessing.

Many people were evacuated on Sand Canyon, and many have horses that had never been inside a trailer. Those horses had to be led by hand out of the canyon. If you add the noise from the fire and the smell of the smoke, you can well imagine that owners and animals were nervous.

Frank Hoffman

Frank Hoffman

At the Nature Center, Frank Hoffman and Marietta Ewing, recreation services leader, prepared all of the cages and quietly loaded the animals. It was done carefully to minimize the amount of stress.

Vasquez Rocks is the logical place to evacuate our animals because Vasquez has animals of its own. Its staff and docents are used to the feeding schedule and even have rats to feed the raptors.

All of the computers and taxidermy were also taken out of the main building at Placerita. Vasquez Rocks was later threatened for a short while, and that was another source of anxiety, but the danger passed and the Vasquez Rocks Interpretive Center was spared along with our evacuated animals.

SandFirePlacerita01On July 24, it was heartbreaking when we learned that Los Pinetos Trail, Waterfall Trail and Walker Ranch had burned. At the time, the fight to keep the Nature Center buildings safe had started. Russ Kimura, the park superintendent at Plaerica, and Hayden Sohm, deputy director of facilities for the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation, were constantly monitoring the road and the fire progress, assessing the situation with the fire crews and sending information to county officials.

We were extremely grateful that Leon Worden (SCVNews.com) and Ron Kraus (Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates president) posted information on Facebook on a regular basis to bring us news. Here was the message from Leon Worden at 1 a.m. on July 25:

“Placerita Canyon Nature Center is still standing. Crew from Oregon arrived a couple of hours ago and is camped out in the parking lot and has been clearing brush. Closest active flames are about 1/2 mile away and progressing slowly in zero wind. Other units are handling flames on both sides of Placerita Canyon Road just east of the Walker Ranch entrance. Numerous hot spots throughout the canyon are likely to flare up for days.”

SandFirePlacerita02As the morning progressed, the fire did the same, going against the wind. The situation became scary as the fire approached the Nature Center. Planes started to make water drops in a systematic pattern for three hours along the fire break that had been created, and by 3.30 p.m., the fire in that area was out.

Ron Krauss told us the good news:

“The Nature Center, Walker Cabin, Oak of the Golden Dream and adjacent areas have escaped fire damage. The fire crews constructed a network of fire breaks around the park which protected it from the oncoming flames. Although the fire apparently has passed through the area, the crews will remain on duty in the park in case of flareups. Placerita Canyon Road and the park will remain closed until further notice.”

July 25 was a day of great anxiety for all of us, and we are very grateful to the Oregon, Kern County and other firefighters who fought so hard and were ultimately successful in keeping our beloved Nature Center standing. We were happy that fire crews used Placerita as their bivouac, using the restrooms and sinks to clean up and be able to rest from their very hard work on our behalf. We knew they were protecting us.

SandFirePlacerita05Something was different in this fire. It was hard to follow the progress on the news because the fire was attacking from many different directions. Facebook was a new tool used efficiently by many, giving accurate information on an hourly basis. Many roads were closed, so it was important for all of us to be aware of what was going on.

Uncertainty is nerve-wracking. Thanks to everyone who kept on sending clear and up-to-date information at a time we needed it the most.

The animals were brought back from Vasquez Rocks on July 28. All is well at the Nature Center, and we are happy they are back home.

I have been a docent for 30 years at Placerita and I have lived through a few major fires.

This fire was one of the most ferocious for several different reasons. The temperature each day was well above 100 degrees, making it hard for the firefighters to work in the constant heat. Each day was windy, so the path of the fire was unpredictable. Areas that had burned already were burned a second time, and the fire would still find enough fuel to continue moving, then deviate slightly from the original path and start with renewed vigor.

SandFirePlacerita04Once it was safe to be in the area, the time came to assess the damage, and it was not pretty. The trails that attract our visitors – Canyon, Waterfall and Los Pinetos – were burned beyond recognition and were highly dangerous. Trees that had burned were hanging on each other rock slides closed the trails, and the areas were unsafe.

Those particular trails were securely closed with gates by county request. The pinch points made of large rocks placed on the trail to slow down the bicycles were removed so trucks from the U.S. Forest Service could start cutting trees and large branches that had fallen onto the trails.

This cleanup operation is going to be going on for many months, and the trails will remain closed during that time.

The ashes are also unhealthy to breathe, and they will remain volatile until we get a few good rains. But while we wish for rain, when the rainy season starts, we are going to face mudslides that could block the trails and cause problems with the stream.

We cannot say when these trails are going to reopen in the face of so much uncertainty. We will hope for the best but must prevent accidents to park visitors. This is the reason the long trails will remain closed until further notice.

The short trails around the Nature Center are open, and the buildings are intact. We will continue to offer all of our nature education programs and tours for the school groups, and we are extremely grateful to be able to do that.

Calgrove Fire area, 6 months later. Photo: Leon Worden

Calgrove Fire area, 6 months later. Photo: Leon Worden

The devastation a fire leaves behind is always shocking and disheartening. We get attached to a special tree, a bush that we fell in love with, or how the sun hits the leaves of the trees. So many of them being burned is hard to see and even harder to accept. However, we must remember that the vegetation always comes back – so don’t despair. Chaparral will take you by surprise, and six months to a year from now, the park will be green again with plants growing back and bringing new hope with them.

Do not let this first sight of Placerita bring you down. Keep the faith and the hope for this new birth. It will happen, and that is a firm promise.

 

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

 

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4 Comments

  1. treehugger says:

    Evelyne, Thank you for the good news about the Park buildings being “saved”. Yes, we need to not give up hope because some of the most beautiful wild flowers NEED fire to seed. After a fire in Bouquet Canyon
    the next Spring brought the amazing wild flowers that have not been seen since. Nature seems to take better care than “we” do.

  2. Fred says:

    Great and extremely accurate article about the Sand Fire and the Nature Center! Thanks, Evelyne!!!

  3. Catlan Rich says:

    An excellent article, thank you.

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