12 December 2012

Carbon Canyon Fire History: The Conflagration of 1990

It was late June 1990 when a transient started a fire that raged throughout Carbon Canyon and scorched over 6,600 acres and destroyed fourteen houses, all of these in the community of Sleepy Hollow.

To the west in Brea, the flames came very near to destroying the La Vida Mineral Springs Cafe, which, notably, was said to have been "built on the site of a 19th-Century stagecoach stop," a claim that has no basis.   The owner of the restaurant, Don Himes, who noted the structure was 64 years old, placing its construction in 1926, which squares with some of the sources noted in this blog, was also grateful for a Los Angeles County Fire Department five-engine crew that preserved the cafe from the inferno.  Significantly, this crew worked from the cafe roof and Carbon [Canyon] Creek, which ran directly behind it and had to deal with "bamboo" that caught fire.  This is the notorious arundo donax, which has been under an intensive eradication program along the creek since the November 2008 blaze.

There were also concerns that the fire could consume portions of Olinda Village, though the community was spared major damage.  At any rate, a Los Angeles Times article on the 29th went into great detail concerning the fire's effects and quoted many canyon residents.

Moreover, hundreds of firefighters manned the lines on the fire and at least eight sustained minor injuries.  Other damage included the destruction of some four miles of phone lines, affecting service to nearly 1,000 customers, while Southern California Edison lost a few power poles and cell tower (how many of us had those massive things in '90?) and Southern California Gas shut down service in the area until the blaze was over.

A large number of the more than 200 residents of Sleepy Hollow had evacuated the scene and 30-plus year resident Don Briney, who still lives in the neighborhood, pronounced the fire "the worst one we've ever seen," eclipsing even the 1958 fire, which occurred when he was a fairly new resident.  Briney was able to save his home by using his garden house and wetting the structure overnight, but he and his wife expressed concern that fire crews were no adequate in their part of the fire zone.  An Orange County fire captain, Dan Young, countered that crews were there, but were focused on houses where brush clearance had taken place according to the department's recommendations, because these residences had "the most likelihood of being saved.  Indeed, with the thick growth of trees and brush, it was remarked that there was great surprise that there wasn't more damage.

The most notable loss in the fire was what has been called "the Doctor's house," a sprawling 8,000 square foot house that sat on top of the hill above Hillside Drive on the northern portion of Sleepy Hollow, where the lion's share of the damage in the fire occurred.  Another two-story residence was consumed completely, leaving 48 cinder block columns, a chimney, several blackened cars and an indoor pool with water blackened by burned wood from the house.

One reisident, Robin Overholser described the fire as "a tidal wave of flame, while Yvette Magliozzi, commented that "the smoke was so bad you couldn't sleep."  Overcome with emotion, Linda Wolverton exclaimed that she gave a firefighter "a big old hug" and credited crews with saving the community.

Still, a state forestry department captain, Bruce Brown, noted that the area, with its proximity of houses to open space with the density of plant material prone to extreme dryness, was "designed for disaster" and commented that "it could have been a bad, bad situation."

In the over 20 years since, more houses have been added to the Canyon and more will undoubtedly be built (with the Madrona/Canyon Crest project back in play again on the Brea side).  Even with improvements in prevention, firefighting tactics and communication, and other factors, the risk of catastrophic fire will not go away, especially if some predictions of the effects of climate change hold true. 

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