Managing acts of God


Our recent downpour was a wake up call to our community (like we needed one) about the potential devastation we face in the next few winters to come. That small amount of rain put an amazing amount of mud and rocks in backyards and streets below the burn areas, letting us know what we face in the future with a hard sustained rain.

With that in mind, I visited Ananda Ashrama at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue to see how flood preparations were going at the religious retreat which covers 120 acres. After all, it had been mentioned several times in the community meetings held by the city of Glendale as being particularly vulnerable. The temple buildings sit next to Ward Canyon, one of the major drainage canyons between Dunsmore and Shields canyons, and directly below the burn areas.

Fortunately, the retreat has had the benefit of having somewhat of a land management visionary team in charge of its flood preparations. Warren Marr – the author of a photographic book on Descanso Gardens, called appropriately “Descanso” – is a member at the Ashrama who several years ago agreed to join the team whose monumental task it is to take care of the grounds of this mostly wild sanctuary. Of course, at the time he volunteered he had no idea what he was taking on, but he soon became fully engaged in protecting the site from the perils that threaten it on a constant basis.

Taking his cue from local fire history, and keeping in mind a desire to keep the grounds as natural as possible, he launched an expanded program of brush clearance several years ago along with a policy of trimming tree branches up off the ground. Many church members helped with the mostly volunteer work. The policy was tested during the Station Fire when the firefighters confidently stepped into the defensible spaces created around the developed portion of the Ashrama; and, as we know, nothing there was lost. Manage it correctly now or lose it in the future is the mantra.

The community is now applying that same flavor of land management to its plans for flood prevention. They have cleared the lower drainage of Ward Canyon of brush and debris, and completely removed a roadway that crossed Ward Canyon, blocking the ravine above the temple. Working closely with the city of Glendale, another church member, La Crescenta native and American Airlines pilot Jim Anderson is overseeing construction of several massive improvements to the natural hydrology of the land above the retreat, and the community seems to have a pretty clear vision of what needs to be done to protect the retreat and the neighborhoods below it.

I had visited the Ashrama expecting to see an amateurish-looking series of sandbag berms and instead found a civil engineering project overseen by natural project managers. I asked Marr if he had some engineering background. He told me no – he had a college degree in Asian history and had studied geology, but he was a former contractor and is now a landscape photographer by trade. Jim Anderson is also a former contractor and local builder. Marr tells me the management of the Ashrama grounds has become somewhat of a full time job. I think it’s a dedication that will serve the retreat well and will ultimately keep it safe into the future.

We also talked briefly about the Ashrama and the neighborhood. Ananda Ashrama has always been of great interest to the Historical Society as it has changed very little since it was established in 1923. It’s a time capsule of old La Crescenta and figures prominently in many of the dynamic stories of our past. Marr said that in keeping with its purpose as a retreat, the Ashrama tries to keep a low profile, and that in spite of its incredible beauty, it’s a church, not a public park and should be treated as such by visitors.

Marr is an unassuming man who, in order to help preserve his temple, has taken a bold stance on flood prevention – it is an attitude to admire and perhaps even emulate.

Mike Lawler is the  president of the
Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.

He can be reached at