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Caltrans workers angered at loss of their homes near Mt. Wilson [Updated]


For decades, an enclave of Caltrans workers has lived in a group of 80-year-old homes alongside Angeles Crest Highway, about 10 miles northeast of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. It is their job to keep the highway free of debris, rocks and snow for the benefit of thousands of people who travel to the top of the Angeles National Forest year round.

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, those residents –- who include four families, some of whom have lived here for more than a quarter century --- were taking stock of their losses. Three of four historic homes were destroyed adjacent to a relatively new $4-million Caltrans maintenance center. [Updated, 8:41 p.m. The center, which was constructed with fire-resistant materials, was largely unscathed.]

The California Department of Transportation employees who lived at the remote location known as Chilao were deeply embittered by having been, as they put it, abandoned by firefighting crews as flames bore down on them Monday afternoon.

Some  were too angry to talk about it. But equipment operator Robert Torres, whose home was the only residence spared, offered a few comments on their behalf.

“We were left on our own here,” he said. “At one point, there was a helicopter flying overhead with a bladder full of water and not dropping. What does that tell you?”

“Before we evacuated, we were waiting for a strike team to arrive or an aerial drop of water or fire retardant,” Torres said. “That never happened.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, it seemed especially upsetting to the residents that an extraordinary amount of attention was being paid to saving property at nearby camping facilities and the Mt. Wilson complex.

“The U.S. Forest Service knows we’re here,” Torres said. 

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: A state forestry department crew sets back-burns to remove possible fuel for the approaching Station fire around the Mt. Wilson Observatory and radio towers. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Interactive map: The Station fire

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Firefighters gain upper hand in Oak Glen and Pendelton fires

Mt. Wilson webcam: The 150-Foot Solar Tower

L.A. County Fire Department: The latest

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

Comments () | Archives (80)

Hmmmmmmm, a historic home in the hills for a Cal trans workers vs. saving a historical telescope and radio transmission location. Which one do I pick? Don't worry Cal trans workers, your insurance will rebuild your homes. And you'll be back on the tax payer's dole for your retirement pensions in no time.

If they created an article for every upset homeowner, well you get the picture. Caltrans workers...you need to see the whole picture.

Karen, your kindness and great humanity knows no bounds.

This article and the comments on the "Cal Trans" workers is the most upsetting and ridiculous thing I have ever heard. As if their homes are the only ones that are in the path of the fire.

“Before we evacuated, we were waiting for a strike team to arrive or an aerial drop of water or fire retardant,” Torres said. “That never happened." Maybe their was a reason for this not "happening". Never considered that right.

My husband is one the many firemen risking not only his life but the livlihood of myself and my children. Sorry but as far as I am concerned every house up there can burn as long as he is safe. His safety comes first. Your houses are replacable. He is not.... Quit your whining and be thankful for what you do have. If that is not enough put the fire out and save your house yourself.

These ungrateful Cal Trans workers need to be very ashamed! The police are often wonderful and necessary, but the firefighters are our real HERO'S.

Thanks Karen, that was some really insensitive comments.

That's a pretty lame and thoughtless comment, Karen. Is the insurance gonna replace all of their personal possessions? As we know, it's not only the loss of four walls that is traumatic for fire victims, but also the loss of what is inside the home. These hard-working employees of the state deserved as much effort to save their homes as did the people whose million-dollar mansions down thill were threatened by the fire. This story deserves a closer look.

While I don't doubt the fire crews are taking special care of Mt. Wilson (and it's not only a historical landmark - it's an incredibly important scientific outpost with millions of dollars of technology - to say nothing of protecting communications in L.A.), I think it's poor taste to criticize the fire crews. I live in Glendale, and they've been working incredibly hard on a very difficult fire. That more homes have not been lost is a testament to that. I feel horrible these people lost their homes, but they are not the only homes lost (and my guess is they will be better taken care of than others who lost privately-owned homes). I've met numerous fire fighters in the L.A. area over the years and been consistently impressed by their professionalism and kindness. Most of them are concerned with saving as much as possible and minimizing damage. Get angry about the loss and the situation, but please don't blame men who are continuing to put their lives on the line. Wait and see if it's arson - because if it is, that is who to get angry at.

This story definitely needs a closer look. The working class in this country are treated poorly and this is just one example. Sorry, Karen, but firefighters are very well paid say compared to me- a teacher- and they are certainly accorded more respect for the 10 days a month they work. during non fire season. It is your husband's job to save homes. Funny, I should be judged by results but not firefighters.

It seems that the millionaires take precedence in this society, not the working people. I feel badly for the Cal Trans workers.

Why were those homes there to begin with?

Right... "hardworking Caltrans workers." I think there are lot of people stuck behind LA construction projects that would beg to disagree with that statement.

I agree that it's terrible that these people lost their homes. But in my opinion, that is part of the risk of living in that location. There's always the risk that fire destroy everything. I'm sure the fire command had their reasons for diverting attention elsewhere. But even if there was some unfairness involved--it still doesn't detract from the fact that they took the known risk of living in a fire zone. Even when it comes down to personal items and cherished mementos... in the end, they're still objects. These people have the right to be upset, but to start blaming firefighters comes off more as bitterness than anything substantiated.

Shame on the LA Times for publishing such a pointless article. It raises more questions than it answers. It provides too little information about the Cal Trans workers' circumstances for any of us to either learn anything or make any of the judgments reflected below in the comments. For example, there's nothing in this mini-article about whether the Cal Trans workers were expected to stay up there, when they were evacuated, whether they had some reason (and not just an unfounded 'expectation') to think the water helicopter was going to drop water in their vicinity, etc. Why bother to publish a story like this when you haven't gathered enough facts?? It just encourages people's already-hypertrophied tendencies to make snap judgments without enough information. Were this legitimate journalism, you wouldn't have printed this story without first having answers to the salient questions .

I think there is a closet conspiracy to save expensive houses and let less valuable homes burn. I know it sounds lame but look at the homes that burn and the ones that they try to save. They don't care about your house cause you don't pay enough in taxes. I was in the middle of the Merrick and Sayre fires last year. Amazing how all the nice hill top homes were un touched by a wildfire but a mobile home park of 300+ homes by the 210 went up in flames. ITS CALLED HOUSIAL DISCRIMINATION!! They laugh and don't give a hoot about the common blue collar homeowner. Just the wealthy. Every time I see a fire crew drinking coffee standing in circles around Lake View Terrace I wonder WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU DOING TO EARN TRIPLE TIME!!!!! Firefighters are overrated. They don't save home they just want to escort you out if the area. That is there mission they could care less if your house goes up in flames. Unless your house is worth a million plus. Amazing how the fire started in LA Canada but no homes have burned there. But over in Tujunga C-YA. Not a mystery to me.

I am sure it is very upsetting to lose one's home, but from what I understand, these houses are owned by the state of California. They are provided to Caltrans workers who are working at Chilao, but the workers do not own these houses. It makes sense to me that the government (the firefighters, etc.) assigned a low priority to saving some state-owned cabins (and they are cabins - take a look at some photos) in the mountains in light of the towering inferno threatening an entire city below (and an observatory above).

I am surprised the article didn't address this point. I understand the Caltrans workers' anger, but it seems misplaced.

Don't you people understand this is another divide and conquer story. One fire official was filmed stating that the water tankers on lease from Canada were not needed to fight these Southern California fires. And this was televised on local news. Yet we are let to be believe by this story that these CalTrans workers are ungrateful of the fire fighting efforts. Yet our officials parade with the interest of the public.

I feel deep sadness for all of the losses, but greate sadness for the misinformation.

Stay informed, look at the big picture.

Make lemonade out of the lemons you've been handed, Caltrans: you now have the chance to build new, fire-resistant, green (solar power?) modern homes on some of the most remarkable land that there is in the US. Land that can't be had for any price...

Brushfires are a chance to change things for the better.

I feel for these people who lost their homes, really, I do. My parents lost their home to a fire (not wildfire) about 2 years ago. But seriously, 50 some other families lost their homes. Where are the articles on them? Like I said, I do feel for them, but nobody else is running to the Times (or having the Times run up to them) so they can wine, piss and moan that the firefighters didn't do enough to save their home.

The homes were state property and the workers liked the deal they had. Now the deal is over and they have to buy their own homes. No wonder they are mad.

Hey, Paul, before you go running your mouth, GRAB A HOSE. No? Not willing to? Ok then, SHUT THE H*** UP!

As someone who resided in the area, Robert and the likes of his crew could be counted on to help you at all times of the day. It was an honor to count the likes of Dale Hahn, Ron Sheehan, Richard West, Rob Eual and the Altadena guys such as Henry and Freddy as friends.

I remember that it was Henry who found the Crescenta Valley High School students who's car went off the highway in the mid 1990's and administer first aid to one of the survivors. In 1993, the Cal-trans crew at Chilao helped man the roadblocks to protect the forest during the Altadena firestorm of that year. In the El Nino winter of 1997-98, these guys endanger themselves in attempting to keep the highway open during the onslaught of storms. Now almost 16 years later, they get bashed by the likes of Karen for simply wanting some protection from this historic fire ??

Thanks guys for all you have done and do.


Scott Johnson
former Camp Valcrest Manager

I wish this story had been reported in greater depth. Why was water not dropped on the home; who made the decsion, and were the reasons for it? I hope the Times does a follow- up story.

Bobby, Alex , Larry,tsk, tsk, tsk, spoiled little children, listen. You have your lives. You may not have your homes but you have life. You've probably never had to fight for your country in your life, and if you did, I'd frankly be frightened for our country. You're used to being given everything you want, and you are upset because a fireman or police officer decided to protect our radio transmission towers instead of your homes. Like Amanda said. "Sorry but as far as I am concerned every house up there can burn as long as he is safe. His safety comes first. Your houses are replaceable. He is not.... Quit your whining and be thankful for what you do have." Do you people have any comprehension whatsoever of what was at risk here? You are lucky to be alive! Cal trans workers have insurance, they have a taxpayer funded pension. That is something that so very very few have. Have you no honor? Did you give a thought to Amanda's husband when you blurted your politically correct diatribe about how I was insensitive or thoughtless? Is it easy from the cheap seats Larry? Because from what I see it's easy to sit back and say everyone should have THIS. But it's very difficult to step back and say, "hey, wait a minute, who's gonna PAY for "THIS"". : Kindness and great humanity", my arss , time for you to live in the real world children. If you had an ounce of character, you'd personally go and thank our firemen for evacuating you and your "hard working" (like the rest of us AREN'T hard working) family for saving your"sucking the blood out of the taxpayer" lives.
I have plenty of kindness and humanity. It just isn't for these people. Thank God for our police officers and firefighters. Seriously, thank God.

Right on, Karen! Firefighters are working their asses off, putting their lives on the line and these guys badmouth them? I doubt one single water drop from that copter would have saved those homes. And when did this turn into a debate over which profession is more important? Teachers judged by performance? RIGHT!

Yup. That's pretty much what firefighters do--form international conspiracies contriving ways to screw people, particularly CalTrans workers, who of course firefighters regard as their primary enemy. Amazing that they were able to perform such nefarious deeds on such short notice. I mean why else would you be a firefighter unless you wanted to make sure people, particularly working people like yourself, lose their houses to fire?

If we lose Mt. Wilson and the radio and telecommunications equipment on the mountain, that would negatively impact all Southern California for years. I'm sorry for the loss of the state-provided Cal Trans workers homes and personal belongings, but the government will rebuild your homes, and insurance (you are insured, right?) will cover your personal losses.

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