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Sunday, 19 January 2014

A fast moving fire in the Foothills.

Here is the account of the fire that started in our neighborhood.

“June-Gloom” is a term I learned early on when we settled in the Los Angeles area where the month of June is, all too often, gloomy and cold.  Usually a June day starts with a drizzle or overcast that lasts until-mid day, while the temperature stays around 75F.  Call me weird, but this is the kind of weather I like for a summer day.

The June-Gloom is nostalgic for me because I associate gloomy weather with vacationing.  Growing up in Tehran, Iran, we had blistering hot summers and when my family went for summer vacation to the Caspian Sea, the weather was usually overcast and rainy. Of course in those days I was praying for sunny days so we could go to the beach. But now I love the summer chill.   

The first year after we arrived in Glendale, California, the weather during March, April and May was so hot that I packed all our winter clothes in a suitcase thinking we would not use them until the fall.  But when June arrived the weather was so cold that I had to unpack the sweaters from the suitcase.

However on June 26, 1990 the weather turned in the opposite direction and the temperature reached an all time record high of 112F.  It was so hot that it didn’t cool off even when night came. 

The following day, June 27, my 10-year-old daughter, Tina had invited her friends for a swimming party. However since the weather was too hot for the kids to be outside, we canceled the party.  Little did I know that the decision was a true blessing in disguise. The heat was a few degrees less than the previous day, but still scorching at 109F.

On that day I had a doctor’s appointment in the morning.  Afterwards, I went grocery shopping and when I drove onto our street I noticed that the dried overgrown brush at the foot of the hill looked extremely volatile.  It gave me a creepy feeling. I thought, “If someone puts a match to it, the whole thing will burn in one minute.” 

At the corner of our street there were three vacant lots that the builders were just starting to frame houses.  A picture is etched in my mind of the construction workers bending their heads backward and gulping water from Ice coolers.  I pitied them having to work in that heat. 

I drove home. Since it was so hot I didn’t even put the perishables in the refrigerator. I just left everything on the counter and rushed to take a shower so I could cool off.  I was toweling off when I received a phone call from a friend who lived nearby.  I was trying to find an excuse to cut her short, because my groceries were still laying on the counter. At that moment I heard sirens. I asked her, “Do you hear the sirens?” And she said, “Yes there must be a huge fire – I can see the smoke from my window.” When I got closer to the window and looked out, I saw the smoke was right below us.  I shouted, “My Gosh, the fire is in our street, I need to hang up.” – That was a good excuse. And I hung up, even though she insisted on hearing more details…

In the five years we had lived in that neighborhood, fire had broken out at the foot of the hill a few times. Each time the firefighters had put off the fire quickly.  After the fact, I had heard from the neighbors about the fire. This time my curiosity consumed me. I decided to drive down one street below our home to watch the spectacle.  I told my daughter Tina to jump in the car and come with me. How stupid!

As soon I pulled out of the garage I saw the thick smoke and realized immediately that it was a mistake to drive down.  Then I noticed the hill behind our house was on fire too. Not until that moment did I sense the depth of what was happening. It was far more serious than I had thought. The fire had already leapfrogged from below to the upper hills.  I hurriedly pulled into the garage, closed the garage-door and rushed to make a call to my husband whose office was a few blocks away. He said that he’d be home in a minute. 

In the rush and confusion, I had little time to think about what to do.  But I remembered that in college, we were asked to write an essay about what would be the first thing you would grab in case a fire breaks out.  I ran upstairs to get family photographs.

I hate to admit it but, for the last 10 years, since we had arrived in the United States, I had just collected all the family photos and the negatives in envelopes.  They were not organized in albums. The photos were all stored in a big box and it was too heavy for me to carry them.  So I pushed the box under the vanity, thinking it would be safe there.

Now, I hear from downstairs my Spanish housekeeper screaming, “Senora, senora… Bomberos, bomberos estan aqui. Debe fuimos.”  (translation: Mrs. Mrs., the fire engines are here. We need to run.)  Not knowing what else to grab, I take my fur coat.  Then I hear someone at the door.  I run downstairs with my fur coat on a coat-hanger.  At the door there is a woman wearing a uniform, a dark blue skirt, a blue shirt and high heels with a walkie-talkie in her hand. She tells me, that my husband couldn’t make it home, because the street was blocked.” She says, “Take the kids, valuables, money and a bucket of ice water. Drive down Verdugo Rd., because the other side is blocked.”

Our home was situated on a hill in a development of 103 homes, built in the late 1960s.  You could access the community from two different sides. Later, I learned that when my husband had entered our street from the Glenoaks side to come to our rescue, right in front of him a house had blown up in the fire and the police had not let the cars up the hill.  My husband says, “watching a house burning and exploding into pieces, in front of my eyes, was so scary – after all, it might have been our home.”  But fortunately our home was higher up on the hill and we had time to get out of the house.

There were no cell-phones to communicate in those days.  But since 1985 my husband had a car phone – not sure why he couldn’t use his car phone to call home.  Or perhaps he didn’t drive his car and instead got a ride. In any case, he says that he felt so fortunate to find this woman officer and ask her to come to our door and tell us to just take the car and flee. 

It boggles my mind to think of how in that pandemonium this woman could find our home. I always wondered who that woman in "high hills" could have been. Perhaps she was an administrator at the fire department and most probably she was driven in a car, because our streets were too steep to walk with high heels. 

With my calculation, from the minute I had arrived home and taken my shower, to the minute that the woman showed up at our door, could not have exceeded more than 30 minutes. In that short period of time our neighborhood had become an inferno. 

I asked Rosa, our housekeeper, who was muttering unceasingly, “Dios mio, Dios mio,” to take water and ice and we left. Rosa and my son Erik, who was five years old, sat in the backseat of the car and Tina in the front. As I pulled out of the garage, I noticed that the street was covered with crisscrossed water hoses.  A few firefighters tried to stop me from driving the car over the hoses, but I carefully rolled the car down the hill.  Rosa had put the water and the ice in a bowl and every time we crossed the hoses, the water in the bowl spilled.  I guess it is common to do all sorts of stupid things in an emergency situation.

While we were driving down the hill, I noticed a guy that had covered his face with a handkerchief and was running door-to-door to make sure that people were aware of the fire.  

A few houses down, I saw a neighbor, putting their paintings in the car to save them.  Their house got a major fire damage but they saved the paintings. That's all I remember leaving the neighborhood.

Next, in my mind’s eye I see that we are all gathered outside of my husband’s realty office, in a shopping center, a few blocks down from our house, at the corner of Chevy Chase and Broadway, watching the fire scene.  It was surreal – the thick smoke was bellowing over the hills and flickers of fire were everywhere. We could see the houses burning to pieces. The helicopters were hovering and dropping huge buckets of water.  It was an extremely intense situation. The news said that the fire had traveled over the freeway to the neighboring hills.

My oldest daughter, Meldia, who was 15 had joined us. She was crying, not as much about losing our home as about losing family pictures. I was thinking to go back to home and maybe save the pictures, but the streets leading to our home were closed to cars.  We could only get there by walking, but that was out of the question, because the neighborhood was engulfed in heavy smoke and our street was too steep to walk in triple digit heat.

The fire was contained around 8pm and we were permitted to go home walking. Our home was saved. When I reached to our door, there were two firefighters who told me that we had only a little bit of roof damage.  Overwhelmed with emotion I teared up I hugged both and thanked them for a selfless fight and saving our home.  Indeed, they had done an incredible job.  They were able, within few hours, to contain a fire that had reached almost to one hundred acres.

I entered our home and went right to the kitchen. The groceries that I had bought hours before were still on the counter.  The home was dark, muggy and smelled like smoke.  There was no electricity.  Although the Red Cross had set up sleeping facilities at Wilson Middle School and at the Civic Auditorium, we spent the night at a friend’s home. 

Fortunately we didn't say goodbye to our home but many lost their homes and their belongings. In our College Hills neighborhood 16 homes were burned to the ground.  The fire then had hop-scotched over the freeway to the neighboring hill and had burned down another 50 homes.  Fortunately there were no deaths.

This fire, which caused $40 million in damage and was the worst in the history of Glendale, had gained national importance.  It turned out to be one of a string of arson fires set by John Orr a Glendale Fire Captain and lead arson investigator.

On December 4, 1991, a year and a half after the Glendale fire, Orr was arrested in front of his home, at 7:30 a.m. on his way to work and almost seven years later on June 25, 1998, a jury in a California state court convicted him of first-degree murder.  Orr is currently serving a life sentence at Lompac Penitentiary in Lompoc, California.

Joseph Wambaugh has chronicled the chilling story of John Orr in a book entitled “Fire Lover,” and HBO has released a movie called Point of Origin.  He is possibly one of the most destructive arsonists of the twentieth century.  The authorities say that after Orr was arrested, the number of fires near Glendale area decreased by over 90 percent. I can personally attest to that, because, no fire has broken-up since then, in College Hills.   

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Looking back to the devastating Northridge Earthquake – Remarks from Neighbors at Sparr Heights in Glendale

Twenty years ago on January 17 at 4:31in the morning, Los Angeles was jolted awake by the devastating Northridge Earthquake. The motion was felt as far as Las Vegas, Nevada, about two hundred miles away.  Our home in Glendale which was about 16 miles away from the epicenter, didn't get any damage, because it was sitting on a granite bedrock, however the motion was too strong. 

We thought the best thing was to go out and sit in the car. So my husband, our kids, (19-15-9) went outside and sat in the car.  I'm not sure if we had cell phones at that time but I remember that we put calls to our parents who lived in Glendale. Maybe we called them from home.  I asked my kids and they didn't remember much.  One thing that I remember it well, it was the aftershocks.  Within the next few weeks there were many aftershocks and we had become experts in telling each after shock how strong was in Richter Scale.

A week later on January 23rd, we had a wedding reception at Knollwood Country Club – just a few miles away from the epicenter.  The wedding resumed, but I remember that we had to take surface streets, because the freeways were damaged. It was like going to a sightseeing. On the way we were taking pictures of buildings that had collapsed.  At the wedding there were numerous aftershocks and the huge chandelier was shaking on an on. 

The earthquake caused property damage estimated about $20 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. 

Hear what neighbors at Sparr Heights (Glendale) remember:

Tarik Trad9:40am Jan 17
It's January 17, 2014. at 4:31 a.m. 20 years ago today, the earth shook in Northridge. A few months prior, I had a conversation with a neighbor near Montrose (with a similarly-built house from the 1920s) about bolting our homes to the foundation. For $3,000, I decided it was too expensive. My neighbor decided to "earthquake-proof" his home, only to find the quake - centered some 15 miles away - had torn his home practically in half. Our home, with the exception of some minor cosmetic cracks, did not suffer any structural damage. Thank God!

My LATimes office in Chatsworth was practically flattened, with big, heavy computer monitors and printers tossed across the room like they were pillows.

Anne Beachey-Kemp

I was 2 months pregnant with my first child and my husband was halfway around the world at a conference in New Zealand. We had moved to Sparr Heights only the year before. I remember the noise woke me up first, but then the bed started to shake and I held on for dear life thinking it would never stop. I finally (probably only 15 seconds later) got to the inside hallway and sat there shivering listening to my emergency radio. I couldn't reach my husband for over 12 hours and of course he was freaking out because all of the pictures on the news were showing the collapsed freeways and buildings and fires. At the time, I worked at a company in Sherman Oaks that had no structural damage but was a complete mess inside--computers, books and papers everywhere. It took a long time to clean up and even longer for everyone's nerves to settle. One guy I knew lived in the apartment building in Northridge that collapsed and killed several people but he managed to make it out ok. He was traumatized for a long time after, but never moved out of the area like many others did. I will never forget how weird it was to venture out to work a few days afterwards and see firsthand just how much damage had been done, especially since the only thing that happened at my house was that a couple of things fell off the shelves and broke.
Vanessa Ynda
Vanessa 12:25pm Jan 17
I was living in NY and so worried for my family. Mother in Downey fine, no damage but my sister in Simi had her house move 2 inches to the North. Luckily, they had purchased an earthquake policy one month prior and had her windows, chimney and carpet etc, replaced. She was lucky. So many were not.
Katie Emery
Katie 12:06pm Jan 1
This is what I posted: Twenty years ago today, I woke up to the sound of what seemed to be a freight train hitting our newlywed bungalow in Pasadena - my first earthquake! My husband dragged me to a doorway and we stood there for what seemed like 10 minutes while our whole house shook and glass broke all around us. I was so scared that I could hardly stand up and cried so hard that my tears seemed to shoot horizontally out of my eyes and hit Jon in the chest. Forgot all about our pug puppy - the one that we seriously planned to "take a bullet for" (!) if he ever got attacked. We found him standing on our bed, even more petrified than we were. He forgot his house training for a week!

Luckily, we had little damage. Others weren't so lucky. I'll never forget the poor young mother in the news who was so terrified that something had happened to her new baby (who was fine), that she dropped dead of a heart attack :-(. I still think about her.
Leslie Fechter
Leslie 12:01pm Jan 17
Our new black lab spent her 1st night with us the night of the EQ. She ended up going between the bed and nightstand in fear. I grabbed the kids and all of us plus our elderly neighbor spent the rest of the night in the hallway.

Geoff Mousseau
Geoff 2:30pm Jan 17
I was living on the 19th floor of a building downtown with floor to ceiling windows. The building swayed several feet to each side. We crouched on the floor and tried to hold on. We could see transformers exploding from our view over the city. From the noise and the swaying of the building we were sure it was going to collapse. Then ... it stopped. We lost almost everything we had, but we were unhurt

Tom B
I was working in a "business complex" on the Northridge / Chatsworth border, living in Van Nuys just east of the 405, while my mom was here in Sparr Heights. There wasn't much damage on the home front - a lot of clutter (more than usual) at my place, same thing at my mom's house, plus a few new cracks in the walls and driveway, and the glass cover on the overhead light fixture in "my" old bedroom fell to the floor and shattered. I just stayed in bed until the shaking stopped, and like most folks, I suppose, I was naturally a little jittery for a while afterwards, but I also "survived" the '71 quake here, and was a lot more freaked out after that one.

The work situation was obviously much different and much more severe. The building I worked in (on the second floor) was built around a center atrium, into which all of the surrounding walls collapsed. Because I worked in a department "non-essential to daily operations," I and most of my co-workers got a four-week paid vacation while the engineers did their thing (building surveys, shoring up the walls, etc.). By contrast, I seem to recall that we only got about a week off from Rosemont JHS after the Sylmar quake. I had worked late the previous Friday due to the holiday weekend and accidentally left my wallet in my desk drawer (locked fortunately), so I drove *very* carefully (the few times I did so) during my hiatus. I had no ID and no ATM card, so getting some cash was also a fun "adventure" (for which I will spare everyone the gory details).

They finally called us all back in to help with the clean-up, which included retrieving all of our personal and work belongings from our barely habitable cubicles. Based on the initial photographs they took in the days immediately following the quake, some of the buildings looked a bit like London after the blitz. Many of them had interior offices built with old style ten-foot modular walls, and those basically fell like dominoes; combine that with caved in ceilings and broken windows, and there was debris everywhere. It took days to salvage or trash everything in the worst hit buildings, and then THREE years to finish the necessary retrofitting, repairs, and reconfiguration (during which time we all worked first on tables in multiple "bullpens," then in temporary cubicles, and had to "migrate" between buildings and floors a half dozen times before returning to "permanent" quarters). Not to mention the damage to the freeways and nearby mall, which also seemed to take forever to repair and added another layer of headaches to "daily work life."

All of that was/is trivial, of course, compared to the unthinkably tragic loss of life and property suffered by so many people in the San Fernando Valley. In particular, I'll never forget the images and stories of the devastation at "Northridge Meadows." I've always kept those real victims in mind to blunt any tendencies toward unwelcome "woe is me" moments.

Mark McNelis
Mark 9:57pm Jan 17
I was living in Valencia at the time. I just remember feeling like a giant had picked up my condo and was shaking it! The noise was unbelievable! When the shaking stopped and I got out of bed - the floor was piled with everything from my bedroom. Fortunately, I was unhurt, Made it outside and spent the next several hours waiting out aftershocks. The carports were bent sideways. At daylight went back inside and everything was thrown all over the place. Could not reach my family to tell I was ok. It took a few years before the jitters went away.
Cecy Pinal
Cecy 9:55pm Jan 17
I was living in L.A. when I felt the earthquake. I jumped over my husband, who was sleeping closer to the bedroom door than I was, before he even new there was an earthquake. We stood under the door threshold until it stopped. He usually gets up around 5 am to go to work so he got up and went to work early. I was left at home scared. I didn't have to be at work until 8 am. So when he left I went two blocks down to my parents house to make sure they were ok and to be with others in case of another after shock. As I was getting ready to leave I was listening to the news on the radio. As I listened the announcer on the radio started saying he was feeling a strong after shock. Which I was not. A few seconds later I felt the after shock he was talking about. I thought the few second warning that the earth quake was coming was a worse feeling than just being surprised. After visiting with my parents I went to work. No one was there except for a few people. I eventually found out my boss had called our homes to tell us not to come to work. I unfortunately had left before I got the call. I left work soon after. That was the worst earthquake I have ever felt before. Not looking forward to the next big one.
Diane Lee Crosthwaite
Diane 9:13pm Jan 17
I was living in Palmdale at that time, having been a valley girl prior to that, and we felt it pretty darn good out there. With my family still in the valley, I never felt so isolated than I did during the first few hours after the quake, unable to reach anyone to see if they were okay. 6 months later we bought a house for SO cheap in Northridge!! LOL no damage at all, it was only a few blocks from the major damage and CSUN. We got a great deal, and I was so happy to be living so close to my family again. I've lived here in Sparr since 2001 in the house my Dad grew up in, and have never been happier!