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La Crescenta homeowners defy evacuation order, band together to fight flames

August 30, 2009 | 10:43 am


About a dozen residents of Maurice Avenue on the north end of an island of La Crescenta homes known as Briggs Terrace found themselves Saturday afternoon in the middle of the road, taking stock of their  ominous situation. (An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Maurice Avenue as Maurice Street.)

They were surrounded by fire on three sides, and there were no firefighters or law enforcement in sight. One asked a question that was on everyone’s minds: Is anybody leaving? All of them shook their heads no.

The evacuation order had come down after nightfall for the Briggs Terrace area, a century-old collection of homes in the Craftsman and cabin style, along with newer stucco custom models.

“We started thinking smart and came up with a plan,” said Greg Lievense, 54, an engineer at nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The group broke up into teams of three with an agreement that no one would be alone for the duration of the emergency. One neighbor began stockpiling ladders and flashlights.

"We broke up into ‘ember shifts,' " Lievense said.

“We developed an emergency signal — three long car honks — which would mean that a home is on fire and we need help or we all have to leave,” he said.

Their mission in turn would be to peer into the eaves and backyards of neighbors' homes with flashlights in search of glowing embers or flames and respond if possible.

Charlie Seo, 30, a local high school teacher, said, “One of us has a high pressure fire hose. Each of us took turns practicing with it so that we could become familiar with its recoil and aim the jet.”

Greg and his 20-year-old son got the midnight-to-3-a.m. shift. Within a few hours, however, the neighbors realized that this particular fire was not behaving in the manner that had become almost routine in Southern California.

“There was no wind,” Lievense said. “So we realized it wasn’t going to charge us like a freight train. Instead, this fire was advancing in isolated bursts, and its embers were floating straight up.”

Another neighbor, Steve Toly, 46, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, described the situation this way: “This fire was really ugly and out of control — but predictable.” At daybreak today, the neighbors exchanged high-fives and thanked one another for the “impromptu strategy that made sense real quick,” Lievense said.

Nonetheless, by 9:30 a.m., some hot spots were roaring back to life, and boulders could be heard crashing down the hillsides of steep mountains that were stripped clean of vegetation by the fire.

-- Louis Sahagun

 More photos

 Photos: Southland wildfires

 Map: The Station Fire

 Related articles:

- Schwarzenegger urges residents in path of flames to flee as fire roars in three directions
- Firefighters endure long night in La Crescenta battling flames
- Fires create another bad-air day in parts of Los Angeles
- How are you coping?

Photo: Josh Yeh, whose family chose to ignore a mandatory evacuation order, uses a garden hose to keep his family's roof wet as the Station fire burns in the Angeles National Forest. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times