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L.A. man’s forest sanctuary burned to ground

After five days in bush planes and on horseback, 74-year-old Lew Johnson returned from a British Columbia moose hunt to find his 19th-century home in the hills above Los Angeles was gone.
Image: Lew Johnson, Avianna Veneto
Lew Johnson Avianna Veneto survey the ruins of Johnson's burned-out home in Big Tujunga Canyon outside of Los Angeles on Friday.Reed Saxon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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
Lew Johnson, 74, a real estate broker, carries salvaged items in a bucket as he returns for the first time to his home on Stonyvale Road in Big Tujunga Canyon in the Angeles National Forest, just outside the Sunland area of Los Angeles, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)Reed Saxon / AP

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.

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