Image: Lew Johnson, Avianna Veneto
Reed Saxon  /  AP
Lew Johnson Avianna Veneto survey the ruins of Johnson's burned-out home in Big Tujunga Canyon outside of Los Angeles on Friday.
updated 9/5/2009 8:59:43 PM ET 2009-09-06T00:59:43

After five grueling days in bush planes and on horseback, 74-year-old Lew Johnson was returning from the forests of British Columbia with his prize — a cooler full of meat from a 43 1/2-inch spread moose in the bed of his pickup.

For those blissful few days, he'd had no communication with civilization whatsoever. He'd no idea that his world was in flames.

Tuesday morning, when he finally got back into cell phone range, the retired real estate broker called his 94-year-old mother in Pasadena. He could sense immediately there was something she didn't want to tell him.

"You might as well tell me now," he said. "I'm going to find out sooner or later."

He had left Big Tujunga Canyon for Canada on the evening of Aug. 28, the day before the so-called Station Fire struck. He had no idea that the blaze — the largest in Los Angeles County history — had destroyed more than six dozen homes and claimed the lives of two firefighters.

"Well," she replied. "You know your ranch? It's not there any more."

It wasn't until Friday morning about 11 that the rugged septuagenarian was able to reach the remote community of Vogel Flats, the place he has called home for four decades. With its canopy of oak and pines, his late 19th-century home sat on an island of private land surrounded by the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains.

Still smoking six days later
It was what Johnson called his "little piece of heaven." Only now, it looked like a suburb of hell.

As he walked up the driveway, he stepped over silvery rivulets of molten aluminum that had flowed like lava from his prized 1962 Porsche. Scattered about the yard were the charred skeletons of a half-dozen cars and trucks, a boat-shaped mass of melted fiberglass and the remains of a fully stocked motor home.

Six days after the fire, smoke still belched from the hollow of a white pine in what had been Johnson's front yard. Nearby, deflated cacti drooped over walls like surrealist Salvador Dali's famous clocks.

Though he had not been able to prove it, Johnson's house was reputed to have been a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop when two-lane Stonyvale Road was the main thoroughfare to Palmdale. All that remained of his 3,000-square-foot home was the sturdy stone chimney.

Somewhere in the ruins were the remains of his many hunting trophies, including the mounted heads of a 7-by-8 elk and a 2,000-pound buffalo that had returned from the taxidermist just a few months ago. Mounting the buffalo alone had cost $3,500.

In the wreckage of his garage, Johnson found the barrel of the Browning 264 Magnum deer rifle he'd owned for about a quarter century. Its wooden stock had burned away, and Johnson held onto the breach end, using it like a walking stick as he picked his way through the rubble.

Besides the chimney, the tallest thing left standing was a nearly 6-foot-high gun safe that was supposed to be able to withstand three hours of intense heat. The door was buckled and blocked by ashen debris, leaving Johnson to wonder what had become of the two dozen guns inside.

"It can be fried inside," he says, his face and its day's growth of white stubble smudged with the ubiquitous ash. "But it's one of the best safes you can buy. See? It held up, and it's got insulation. But I won't know until I get it open."

Here and there, Johnson found little irregular pancakes of metal — coins that had melted and fused. Then his bleary blue eyes turned to a ledge behind the home where a concrete block shell stood.

The small structure had housed a tiled Jacuzzi with a faux cement waterfall in one corner.

When Johnson departed for Canada, he was not leaving the house unguarded. His housemate of six years, Jules Goff, and Peter Loretta, an employee who was living in a trailer on the property, were there keeping an eye on Johnson's four dogs.

Despite having a motor home stocked with food, the two men had decided to stay and hope the fire would not reach this far. Besides, there was a Forest Service fire station less than a mile up the road.

But when the fire did come Aug. 29, it came with a speed and ferociousness that could not have been imagined.

As the flames bore down on the house, the two men decided their best bet was to jump into the Jacuzzi. As they opened the door, three of the dogs — Girl and Princess, miniature Doberman Pinschers, and Ammo, an abandoned chow mix Johnson had taken in — scattered.

Johnson's favorite, a 4-year-old fox terrier named Rocky, went with the men. Although he "hates water with a passion," the little dog jumped into the small pool with the men.

The three stayed in the tiny outbuilding until the roof began caving in on top of them. They could hear a truck coming down the road, and they decided to make a run for it.

Image: Lew Johnson
Reed Saxon  /  AP
Lew Johnson tries to salvage what he can from his burned-out house in Big Tujunga Canyon outside of Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 4.
Loretta scooped up Rocky. With the dog cradled in his arms, he tripped and was unable to catch himself — falling face first into some burning debris.

The three made it to the truck and drove out of the canyon. Goff and Loretta were later airlifted to a burns unit in Sherman Oaks, where Johnson says Loretta was undergoing skin grafts.

Three dogs still missing
Johnson had been through two previous fires and a flood in this home. He had used water from the 3,500-gallon tank above the house and another 5,000-gallon container out front to douse hot spots.

But this fire was different.

"If I'd been here I'd have ordered them out," Johnson says, clicking his tongue. "I would not have let them stay, not when I saw that coming on."

Rocky is safe, but Johnson can find no trace of the other three. He can only hope that they made it to the creek and that their identifications chips will eventually bring them back to him.

With his friends in the hospital, Johnson is finding it difficult to care about what he has lost. Most of it was insured, besides.

What worries him more is what he might yet lose.

Johnson has long feared that the Forest Service wants to push him out. Over the years, he and his neighbors have fought state and federal initiatives that would make life in the canyon more difficult.

If he stays, Johnson faces a $45,000 septic system upgrade required because of the endangered desert pupfish that lives in the creek below.

"I'm in favor of the environment," he says. "Heck! I live in the environment. I like my environment. Animals have rights. But you know, don't we have some rights, too?"

Johnson worries that the Forest Service will use the devastation as a pretext for taking the land by eminent domain. Neighbor Duncan Baird thinks his friend's fears are unfounded.

Congress would have to appropriate money to offer landowners fair market value. And with the bank bailouts, the economic stimulus spending and the recently ended Cash for Clunkers program, Baird just doesn't see it happening.

Johnson ready to fight
"The county's getting tax money off of this, and there's no particular benefit to the government just to say they own it," the retired Pasadena fire battalion chief says as he screens ash for whatever trinkets he can salvage from his home of 26 years. "They (the federal government) certainly don't have the money in this year's budget — or next year's budget."

If it does come to that, Johnson says the government will have a fight on its hands.

"That's an understatement," the man in the American flag suspenders says, gritting his teeth and balling his hand into a fist. "I'm going to start a war."

For now, Johnson is staying at one of his other properties. He will wait for the rains, to see how much of the steep, denuded hillside comes down, before starting to rebuild.

Standing in the ash, surrounded by doomed, bone-white trees, it's hard to imagine how someone could see a future here, why he would want to stay.

Johnson raises a finger into the smoky air.

"Listen," he says. "What do you hear? Nothing. That's why I live here."

The trees will come back, he says. They always do.

And so, he vows, will he.

More on: wildfires

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Blazes scorch L.A. canyons

loading photos...
  1. The burned hillsides in the Angeles National Forest run to the edge of La Canada, Calif., seen at right on Thursday, Sept. 3. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Firefighters from Arizona's Blue Ridge Hotshots crew clear trees and brush on Thursday shortly after mandatory evacuations were ordered for 25 people living near this area within the Angeles National Forest. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. This fire crew was working inside San Gabriel Canyon, just outside Pasadena, Calif. (Michal Czerwonka / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Fire crews deploy inside San Gabriel Canyon early Thursday. (Michal Czerwonka / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Forest Service firefighters and law enforcement officials investigate the likely ignition point of the Station Fire on Angeles Crest Highway Wednesday in La Canada-Flintridge. Officials said that the deadly 140,000 acre blaze was probably human-caused. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Firefighter David Bryden, of New Cuyuma, Calif., mops up during a wildfire in the Sunland area of Los Angeles, Wednesday. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Firefighters set back fires trying to keep a blaze in the Deukmejian Wilderness Park from jumping into a neighborhood in La Crescenta on Tuesday. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Burnt out cars and a boat sit on a property that was devastated in the Angeles National Forest on Tuesday. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A resident, who would only give his name as Adi, right, cries as he looks through the charred remains of his home that was burned by the Station Fire, Tuesday, at Vogel Flats near Tujunga. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A firefighter monitors a fire burning behind houses in the suburb of Glendale on the outskirts of Los Angeles on Tuesday. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Firefighters work a fire threatening houses in the La Crescenta section of Glendale, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 1. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A helicopter fights against the wildfire to protect houses in La Crescenta, near Los Angeles on September 1. The monster blaze raging above Los Angeles grew in size as weary firefighters voiced hope that a break in searing temperatures would allow them to make inroads against the inferno. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Noel Rincon hoses the roof of his home in Tujunga, a suburb near Los Angeles, Tuesday. Rincon was one of many residents in the neighborhood who chose to ignore mandatory evacuation orders. (Sean Masterson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Firefighters pull a hose into position trying to keep a fire in the Deukmejian Wilderness Park from jumping a fire break into a neighborhood in La Crescenta, Tuesday. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Firefighters take a break during the Station Fire in La Crescenta, Tuesday. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The burned-out remains of a structure are shown Tuesday, near Acton. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A fire burns near a home in City Oak Glen, San Bernadino, on Monday. The wildfire north of Los Angeles threatens more than 12,000 homes. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Connie Kirchner kisses her cat, Buddy, after finding he had survived the 49er fire that destroyed her home in Auburn, Calif. on Monday. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Paul White, 46, who has evacuated several times since the start of the Station Fire, watches a backfire burn in front of his home in La Crescenta, Calif., on Monday. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A smoke cloud from the wildfires near Mount Wilson in Los Angeles, on Aug. 31. (Hector Mata / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A home owner returns for the first time to find his home in ruins after a wildfire in the Acton area in California on Aug. 31. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives a hug to comfort Tami Higgs, who lost her home in a fire. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Jeff Trapani, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hoses down a hot spot in the burned out remains of a home destroyed by the 49er fire in Auburn. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Lisa Avila pauses as she goes through the charred remains of her home in Auburn, Calif. on Monday. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Los Angeles skyline is obscured by smoke from the Station Fire north of the city. (Fred Prouser / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Fire crews work to contain the Station fire, burning in the hills above La Crescenta. (Michal Czerwonka / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Firefighters look for hot spots on a burnt landscape in Acton area on Monday. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A wall of flames burns next to a road and power lines near Acton on Sunday. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Firefighters inspect some of the damage in Big Tujunga Canyon on Sunday Aug. 30th. after the Station Fire burned through the area. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. This satellite view shows how spread out smoke from the fire was last Sunday. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Los Angeles County firefighters mop up hot spots on Sunday near Acton. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Residents of La Canada-Flintridge and Altadena, Calif., rest at an evacuation center in the gymnasium of La Canada High School. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies and residents help evacuate horses as the Station Fire burns in the hills above Acton. (Dan Steinberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Firefighters battle the Station Fire above La Canada-Flintridge in the Angeles National Forest. (Ringo Chiu / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Raymond Shing waters down the roof of his neighbor David Yeh's house as the Station Fire approaches houses on Canalda Drive in La Canada-Flintridge on Sunday. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A deer escapes a wildfire in the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. The Station Fire burns in the Angeles National Forest above the La Canada-Flintridge area of Los Angeles on Friday. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Los Angeles County fire fighters Kevin Klar, left, Eric Tucker, center, and home owner Henrik Hairapetian are illuminated by the glow of the Station Fire. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. An unknown structure burns during the Station Fire in the Big Tujunga canyon area of Los Angeles. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A firefighter rushes hoses to the backyard of a home for fire protection on Starlight Crest Drive during the Station Fire on Saturday. (Keith Birmingham / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A Glendale Police officer helps residents evacuate from the La Canada-Flintridge area of Los Angeles. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Two horses are penned in a corral as fire burns around them during the Station Fire in the Big Tujunga area of Los Angeles. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A firefighter watches a water drop on the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest above the La Canada-Flintridge area of Los Angeles. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Fire Camp crews come off the line deep in a ravine along Angeles Crest Highway during the Station Fire above La Canada-Flintridge on Friday, in Angeles National Forrest. (Keith Birmingham / San Gabriel Valley Tribune / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Sister Julia Castello and Sister Mary Jensch, right, of Daughters of Mary and Joseph, take refuge at a Red Cross disaster center at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School after a fast moving brush fire that broke out in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., on Friday. (Gus Ruelas / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. A helicopter make a water drop as firefighters battle the Station wildfire on Friday. (Jason Redmond / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A firefighter is treated for dehydration and taken away in an ambulance along Angeles Crest Highway during the Station Fire on Friday. (Keith Birmingham / San Gabriel Valley Tribune / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Camp crew firefighters climb a ridge during a forest fire, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, in the Angeles National Forest, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments