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up in smoke
by lucy lediaev

A piece of my childhood went up in smoke over the last few days. The “angry” Station Fire, as it was referred to by the Fire Incident Commander here, has consumed some of the most beautiful mountain recreation areas easily accessible to people in the Los Angeles basin.

My family didn’t have any money to spare when I was young, but my father knew both the urban and wilderness areas in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties very well. His alcoholic father, who was charming but had trouble holding a steady job, constantly moved his family around the two counties. A standing joke in our family was based on Dad’s usual question as we drove through a neighborhood or rural area, “See that house over there?”

“Yes,” the four of us kids would reply in unison, "You used to live there." Not only had Dad lived all over the two counties, somehow he and his family had experienced an inordinate number of disastrous events. They lived through a major flood of the Arroyo Seco (in English “Dry Canyon”); experienced a dam break that flooded Big Tujunga Canyon when they lived below it in Sunland/Tujunga; and survived the major Long Beach earthquake, which was comparable to the more recent Northridge earthquake, when they lived in Long Beach.

My father liked to drive. He drove for relaxation. It was a common event on my dad’s day off for Mom to make a picnic lunch and pack the four of us kids into the car. That’s when we all learned that my youngest brother suffered from car sickness that came on without warning with disastrous results for the parent or kid sitting closest to him. We were introduced to farm animal we might never have seen had we stayed in the heart of Los Angeles where we lived for the first nine years of my life. My father was also familiar with the foothill and mountain areas that surround Los Angeles. One of my earliest memories (I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4) was of my father pulling my brother, who was 11 months younger than I, out of a clear pool in Big Tujunga canyon. My brother had simply walked into the pool, unaware that the water was over his head as he looked at the “pretty fishies.” He threw a tantrum when my dad fished him out, because he was having a good time.

Big Tujunga Canyon and its brother Little Tujunga Canyon are canyons that start in the Angeles National Forest and whose mouths open into the northern end of the San Fernando Valley. Lower areas of the canyons are filled with large boulders, the scrub and sagebrush of the chaparral, and oak trees. As you drive into the Forest, oaks are replaced by scrub pines and cottonwoods, then ultimately by pine trees. Impressive rock formations add visual interest to the canyons, but the most appealing feature of both canyons are creeks through the canyon. Big Tujunga Creek has been a favorite for campers, waders, swimmers, photographers, and fishermen (it's stocked by the California Department of Fish and Game) for as long as I can remember, and probably from before the time my father was born in Los Angeles in the early 1920s.

This year the creek has been mostly dry except for rain storms of short duration. But, the brush, even though dry from drought conditions, and the rock formations still made the area attractive for sightseeing, picnics, and photos. Now, in just a couple of days, only the rock formations remain. Yes, the creek will come back this winter and spring if we have El Niño conditions as promised by weather forecasters. But, El Niño brings heavy rains, to Southern California. But, the pristine creek I remember from childhood visit won't remain. Instead, when the rains come, so will the mud slides and mud flows. The mud flows will fill the creek with rocks, mud, ashes, and burned plant debris, clogging and perhaps even changing its course. And, when it is dry, instead of cottonwoods and oaks blowing in the canyon winds, dust and ashes will fill the air. Wildlife normally seen in the Canyons—deer, raccoon, skunks, ground squirrels, and blue jays won’t be seen much for a couple of years.

I know that these areas probably won’t return to their former beauty in my lifetime; in many areas the brush and forest had grown untouched by fire for fifty to sixty years (nearly my age). But, they will come back. One of the miraculous things about our California forests and chaparral is that Nature intends for them to burn. When the brush gets too thick, fire becomes a way of thinning it out. Strangely, too is that in years following a fire, we see wild flowers in areas where they’ve not been seen for years. The fires apparently cause seeds lying dormant in the earth to germinate. So, one day before too many years, my granddaughter may experience the peace and beauty I knew in my childhood.

Postscript: Here's a news story about the people and homes in Big Tujunga Canyon: Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2010


A freelance writer and full-time grandma, Lucy Lediaev retired recently from a position as web master, tech writer, and copy writer in a biotech firm. She is enjoying retirment more than she ever dreamed and is now writing about topics that are, for the most part, interesting and fun. She also has time to pursue some of her long-time interests, such as crafts, reading, sewing, baking, cooking, and the like.

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