Fire Near Eichler Tract Raises Awareness

Flames light up the night sky behind the Eichlers of Balboa Highlands -- a warning and a reminder for people to prepare. Courtesy of Adriene Biondo

At first Scott Baysinger thought the smell was coming from a neighbor’s fireplace. “I went to take a peek,” he said. “ ‘Ah, I don’t think it’s a fireplace.’ ”

It was the Saddleridge Fire that had started just minutes before in Sylmar, about two miles away, and quickly jumped Interstate 5 as it burned towards the Eichler neighborhood of Balboa Highlands. The neighborhood is at the far northern end of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

Flames propelled by the infamous Santa Ana winds were soon burning behind the 100-plus home subdivision, which sits on a hilly ridge that faces mountainous open space. Between the Eichlers and the mountains are several streets of non-Eichler homes, and the popular O’Melveny Park.

O’Melveny Park was burning. Then the fire jumped even closer to the Eichlers, to Bee Canyon Park, said Baysinger, who lives on the northernmost street in the Eichler tract, Lisette Street, with his wife Yunjung Elena Chang.

The Santa Susana Mountains can be seen behind the Eichler homes of Balboa Highlands. It was these hills that burned in the Saddleridge Fire. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“As the flame front approached I went into the back to stand fire sentry,” Baysinger said. He wore an industrial strength mask to protect his lungs. “And when the flying debris increased, I got out goggles. I stood there for a half hour while the flame front passed us to the north. We were crosswind to the flames, which were moving from west to east.”

That’s what saved Balboa Highlands from the fire, which began around 9 p.m. Thursday, October 10, near a transmission line. The winds raced east to west. Balboa Highlands sits to the south. Fire burned to within 2,000 feet of the Eichlers, just down the hill, Baysinger said.

“The Santa Anas are always northeasterly,” Baysinger said. “It’s always the same. The fire races across the mountains. The winds went right past us.” He noted that houses that burned were downwind of the racing flames.

Michael Hemming, who was also home that night with his family, compared the Saddleridge Fire to an even scarier blaze back in 2008.

Another view of the Saddleridge Fire behind the Eichler neighborhood. Courtesy of Adriene Biondo

“Eleven years ago the wind was blowing from the north, so it was coming directly towards us. The house just got covered in ash, and there was ash inside the house. It was terrible.”

During the 2008 fire, some Eichler homes saw flames reach their backyards.

The neighborhood was not evacuated for the Saddleridge Fire. Most people remained at home, though Baysinger and Chang say one family with small children left due to bad air quality. Several of Hemming’s neighbors also left. Hemming walked his street about midnight, “to check on my immediate neighbors.”

Hemming said he never thought his home or neighborhood were in danger. Still, both he and his family and Baysinger and Chang prepared to flee.

“There were a few minutes of significant anxiety. I was watching trees and things explode, and it was not far away,” Baysinger said.

Balboa Highlands is filled with attractive, mostly original Eichler homes, some of which serve as backdrops for TV shows, movies, commercials, and other photo shoots. Photo by Dave Weinstein

And Hemming did get worried when the lights went out. “That was the scariest part,” he said. “I realized how much we humans depend on our visual abilities. We had some illumination from the fire. That was just about it.” The lights came back on soon, however.

“I started packing,” Chang said. “What’s essential and what’s not? Our passports. The computer. It was a very sobering moment. It made me philosophical, too. What do I really need, my possessions?”

At last count, the fire destroyed 17 structures, damaged 77, burned 8,000 acres, caused three injuries and one death (to a heart attack).

Chang praised the work of firefighters, who she credits for saving houses uphill that are closer to the wild lands. "The firefighters were working so hard to keep those houses,” she said.

“The aerial assault, that was very impressive,” Baysinger said, of the aircraft that dumped retardant on the flames.

A week after the fire, air quality remains poor, Baysinger and Chang said, with ashes in the air. Staying indoors doesn’t help. “Eichlers are very porous,” Baysinger said.

Hemming, whose home was serving as a set for a commercial that day, was more upbeat.

In the Marin County neighborhood of Upper Lucas Valley, the group Ready Lucas Valley works towards disaster preparedness. This sign promotes the group's efforts. Photo by Dave Weinstein

“In the morning and at night you might still smell the cold, wet ash, but slightly,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sunny day. The hill across [the valley] looks different. It’s now black instead of brown. But other than that, we’re back to normal.”

The fire was a reminder that people should prepare for disaster, and not just in Balboa Highlands. Many Eichler communities are built alongside wild lands, including some of the largest tracts –Lucas Valley, Terra Linda, and San Mateo Highlands.

Baysinger and Chang advise people to decide in advance what to take with you when it is time to flee. Hemming agrees.

“Have everything in the same place. We had our marriage certificate, birth certificates, title for the car in different places. Put it in one folder and put the folder in the safe. Finding the documents cost me some time,” he said.

It also pays for your neighborhood to be organized. Hemming said two groups are forming in Balboa Highlands, one a neighborhood watch, “the other more for disasters and getting help.”

“I went to a neighborhood meeting a year and a half ago, I think it was the Red Cross. It was about getting to know your neighbors,” Hemming said. “What do they do for a living? Is one a doctor? A nurse? A plumber who can shut off your gas? Are there pets that need rescuing?”

Useful advice – except Hemming and his neighbors already know all that.

“You know how Eichler communities tend to be close? Everybody looks after their neighbors,” he said.

“On our street, we all know each other.”

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