By Mary O’KEEFE
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Most who were here when the Station Fire was blazing through normally quiet Crescenta Valley do remember what they felt – scared. Evacuations were made, a Red Cross shelter was set up at the CV High School cafeteria and no one slept as the night sky turned orange.
Just prior to the Station Fire though CV resident Kim Mattersteig had been warning everyone, and anyone, who would listen that her community needed to be educated on the fire danger and a plan was needed.
“There were two components,” Mattersteig said of her concerns about the fire danger. “One is my career.”
Mattersteig is an insurance agent for State Farm.
“I see people losing everything all the time [due to fire],” she said. “And [the second component] is I live here. You look up at the mountain and you could see how bad it was … how it was so dry, and it is dry again.”
Mattersteig reached out to Dep. Jorge Valdivia, community deputy at the time at the CV Sheriff’s Station. They then contacted Stephanie English of the Los Angeles County Fire Dept.
Mattersteig’s fear was not only the dry vegetation but also the narrow streets, and the fact that for many neighborhoods there was only one exit. This concern was not Mattersteig’s alone; in a nearby neighborhood Roger Young was also keeping an eye on the Angeles National Forest.
“For me, it was the realization that it had been 30 years since the Mill Fire,” Young said.
In 1975, the Mill Fire ran over the ANF mountain range. Young’s neighborhood was evacuated but some neighbors, including him, had stayed to fight the fire at their homes. Those who stayed were able to put out embers as they blew toward the homes and he, and others, saved property.
“But I had no clue how to do [what] I did,” he said.
What he wanted was to find a way that the community could work together to learn about fire prevention, and what to do in case of a fire.
“I was at Everest [a restaurant on Foothill Boulevard] and I saw a U.S. Forest Service guy having lunch. I asked if I could [join] him. I did and we chatted. He informed me about the California Fire Safe Council,” Young said.
The California Fire Safe Council is a non-profit organization that was first formed in 1993 with the U.S. Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Its purpose is to educate those living in areas prone to wildfires. Crescenta Valley was the perfect partner for CAL FIRE.
That meeting took place in 2008. Young formed the CV Fire Safe Council and applied for and received non-profit status.
To both Mattersteig and Young, a 2007 fire at a home on Shields Street in Briggs Terrace was a warning sign. The street was blocked as firefighters battled the fire. This left those who lived above the blocked off area of Shields Street trapped until the barricade was lifted.
“That fire contributed to the urgency and concern of what could happen if we had a [devastating fire],” Young said.
Mattersteig arranged for a neighborhood meeting in 2009, just weeks prior to the Station Fire. Young attended that meeting and let those in attendance know of the formation of the Fire Safe Council.
Mattersteig had arranged an evacuation drill with support from CV sheriffs and LACoFD. Fire Safe Council members were there as well. That was 25 days before the Station Fire began.
Another community entity that had been trained and was ready to support its community was CV Community Emergency Response Team.
CV CERT had been activated on Saturday (the fire began on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2009) by LASD. CV CERT Captain Paul Dutton put the call out to his team members.
“Many of them were being evacuated at the time but their families dropped them off [at the CV Sheriff’s Station]. You could see their furniture and clothes that were packed in their car [due to the evacuation],” Dutton said. “That is dedication.”
CERT members were dispersed throughout the area to help with everything from traffic control to distributing information to neighbors.
They worked through the night and into the next day. They helped with supplies and offering guidance to local residents as well as law enforcement from out of the area that had been called in to help. They also assisted with supplies for the Red Cross, law enforcement – anywhere their help was needed.
Dutton said he did learn from the Station Fire. He has continued to increase the number of CERT members and has added training sessions for teens. In October, CERT members will become trained Red Cross volunteers, including training on how to set up and run a shelter.
“I think what we learned was we needed to be called in sooner,” Dutton said.
CV CERT members are local; many emergency responders were from outside the Crescenta Valley, La Cañada Flintridge and Tujunga areas. Having knowledge of streets, businesses and neighbors was invaluable.
For Young, the Station Fire taught him there is more to be done. He has recently formed CV Ready, an organization that will support the infrastructure during and after a disaster. The organization is working with others in the community including CERT on how they can work together in case of emergency.
“I have changed from an [individual] looking for a solution to my problem to finding that, as a community, working together we can gain traction,” Young said.
Mattersteig said after the fire she felt the community had learned a lot and was prepared, but she feared now they were slipping back into complacency.
“I certainly have learned what my priority is [when] given a window of time to evacuate,” Mattersteig said, who was evacuated during the Station Fire.
During the five years since the fire, residents have moved out and new ones have moved in. These new residents who do not have the history of the Station Fire to keep them cautious worried Mattersteig. She has noticed more people parking in areas near fire hydrants, and not leaving room for the fire department engines to make it down the streets.
“We are still dry, so dry. There is a canopy,” she warned. “I have been scared this summer.”
Mattersteig wants residents to know that just because we burned once doesn’t mean we can’t burn again.
“I think we need to have an evacuation drill every two years,” Mattersteig said.
For Kim Mattersteig’s fire safe/ready tips go to www.cvweekly.com. For more information on fire safety, visit www.fire.lacounty.gov and for CERT visit www.cvssg.org. For the CV Fire Safe Council, visit www.cvfiresafecouncil.com.