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Kagel Canyon is tucked into the foothills of Angeles National Forest.

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Kagel Canyon: Tight-knit before and after the Creek Fire

How a tiny town fought a wildfire without fire hydrants

The Hideaway Bar and Grill, a century-old Western-themed watering hole tucked into the base of Angeles National Forest, is packed from wall to wall with locals.

It’s a Saturday night in December, and a rockabilly band plays in the front room, where couples twirl and head-bang under twinkling Christmas lights and paper icicles and a crowd gathers around the pool table in the back room over heaping plates of ribs and coleslaw. Every seat is filled at the wood-paneled bar, which is adorned with horseshoes, antique pistols, and signs, including one that reads: “Gun safety rule #1: carry one.”

The mood is so jovial that if it weren’t for the volunteers collecting cash donations at the door and new or gently used clothing in the motorcycle-lined parking lot, you might never guess that tonight is a relief fundraiser for the Creek Fire. The blaze devastated the neighborhood less than two weeks ago, burning more than 15,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes.

Even to many people in Los Angeles, Kagel Canyon and the surrounding mountain communities of Lopez Canyon and Little Tujunga were unknown neighborhoods before the Creek Fire thrust them into the national spotlight.

“We were always happy that nobody knew where Kagel Canyon was,” says Barbara Hansen, a retired recruiter. Since 2003, she and her husband, Jim Vincent, a former creative director at NBC, have lived in a Depression-era house built around an oak tree that pokes through the roof.

“It’s quiet. People love it. It’s a very small town,” she says. “You either have a horse or a Harley.” She pauses and points to a friend in the parking lot of The Hideaway. “He’s our handyman, in the leather jacket.”

Everyone knows each other at The Hideaway, a former general store with a wooden exterior lined with wagon wheels and towering San Pedro cacti.

The Hideaway Bar and Grill.

Rumored to have been a hangout for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, it served as the backdrop for film shoots for everything from Dukes of Hazzard to Willie Nelson music videos to episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. The bar hosts live music or karaoke four nights a week. It feels like the kind of place that only exists in rural mountain communities—not one located just outside the Los Angeles city boundary, about a mile east of the 210 freeway.

The surrounding neighborhood is just as tight-knit. Outsiders are often viewed with skepticism. Some disdain the “Eagle Rock hipsters” who have been known to crash the neighborhood’s square-dancing events or show up to The Hideaway wearing cowboy costumes.

Eddie Conna, a former Hollywood stuntman, sits at a picnic table on the back patio. Like many of his neighbors, a number of whom are likewise anchored to Los Angeles because of their jobs in the entertainment industry, Conna spent years bouncing around the San Fernando Valley—first in Chatsworth, home to boulder-covered Stoney Point park, and later in North Hollywood, which he says was far too suburban for his taste—before discovering Kagel Canyon.

Seven years ago, he stumbled upon a ramshackle 418-square-foot cottage located on 2.66 acres. It was for sale at “a ridiculously insanely stupid price,” he says, and he snatched up the property, which he shares today with his girlfriend and five dogs.

“We’re never in the house,” he says. “We sleep and eat in the house, and the rest of the time we’re hiking in the national forest or we’re off doing stuff.”

The best way to understand Kagel Canyon is to read the fliers hanging on the giant bulletin board posted at its entrance.

Residents air concerns, share information about community meetings and services, and send messages to one another that range from passive aggressive to compassionate and helpful: “Whoever borrowed my two heavy duty four foot hoses, I understand it was an emergency, but now that the worst is over, it would be really nice if you could return it. Thank you.” Another advertises a 2018 calendar designed by a local artist, and several more show photos of lost and found cats and dogs (“Found at 7-11: Sweet pit bull mix”). One massive sign thanks the firefighters for their work.

“We’re like a dysfunctional family,” says Conna. “When things are going fine we all tear into each other, but when shit hits the fan, and we all have to cover each other, we all look out for each other.”

Deer congregate at a local cemetery.

In a neighborhood where cell service is scarce, the bulletin board functions like a physical version of a private Facebook community, although there’s one of those, too. It’s maintained by neighbors who use it to share moment-by-moment news and gossip with each other.

The only rule in the Facebook community, Conna says, is that members keep their political views to themselves. They tend to be divisive, in a place with multiple shooting ranges, minimal government oversight, Bernie Sanders signs on front lawns, and Donald Trump stickers on pick-up trucks.

“There’s a chunk of libertarians up here, and we have our people who are Hillary types,” says Conna.

But the defining characteristic of most residents, he says, is that they all want to live near nature. Or, at least, “they think they want to live near nature until they start living near nature, and then they start freaking out about what living near nature really means: coyotes, peacocks, mountain lions, bobcats, deer, and fires that rage through and periodically burn half the fucking canyon down.”

The Creek Fire reduced homes in Kagle Canyon to rubble.

Originally inhabited by Native Americans, Kagel Canyon has always been home to an insular community, one in which far-flung, individualist neighbors often had to prove themselves before earning each other’s friendship.

Henry Kagel, a settler for whom the canyon was named, constructed its first residential home—which is still inhabited today—out of adobe in roughly 1900. Another founding member of the neighborhood, a beekeeper and guitarist named Nathaniel Wheaton Dexter, moved there in 1909, when his brother Anthony purchased a lemon grove.

In a typewritten Los Angeles County document now framed on the wall of the Dexter Park recreation center, Dexter recalled his first impression of the neighborhood: “There was no road or entrance to the canyon, nothing in sight all over the valley except a few ranches miles apart and extremely large. Just a wild country anyway you looked. Quiet, beautiful hills, wonderful air, and only a half dozen or so homes.”

Dexter’s first encounter with Kagel wasn’t exactly neighborly:

One day, my brother and I decided we would walk up the canyon and see what was near us. We had only started up when Mr. Kegel [sic] came out of his small adobe cabin and stood with a long rifle in his hand, saying nothing. We had heard he would stop anyone going up his canyon because of his fear of fire...

When we returned down the canyon there was Mr. Kegel [sic] with a rifle, waiting. Finally he said, ‘Would you boys like some fruit?’ We had made a friend and he invited us to return at any time,” The more Dexter explored beyond its tall grass, the more the area materialized as a “a dreamland of oak trees, each with a woodrat net around the base and with their burnt black, drooping branches that reached to the ground.” He also wrote that he believed there was a Native American burial ground located just below the park, “as I one time found part of a stone pestle… and also a three-pronged wisdom tooth—Indian according to my dentist.

The next several years marked a period of slow growth. The first water rights were claimed in 1915, the discovery of graphite in the canyon led to the production of a mining company in 1918, and, that same year, a forest fire burned much of the canyon and destroyed its Douglas firs.

When Kagel and the few other residents in the area weren’t fearing fires, they had to worry about rain, which created massive mudslides that washed out the clearings. By 1928, the canyon still only had about 15 permanent residents, many of whom were lured to the area by jobs in forestry and agriculture, according to a history written by resident Ralph Vradenburg in 1969.

The 1930s saw the formation of the Kagel Canyon Civic Association, the installation of a water system of wells purchased with a Works Progress Administration bond, the founding of a nondenominational church, and the dedication of Dexter Park, the land for which was donated to the county by its namesake. In the 1950s and ’60s, Kagel Canyon was marketed to city dwellers as a pastoral resort community; one advertisement billed it as “one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in Southern California.”

That may be true, but Kagel Canyon has also been badly hit by a number of natural disasters, including the deadly 1971 Sylmar-San Fernando Earthquake, which leveled dozens of homes.

By 2010, its ZIP code—which includes Sylmar, Lake View Terrace, swaths of the Angeles National Forest, and parts of Santa Clarita—boasted more than 91,000 residents, according to federal census data, but the population of just the canyons alone is considerably smaller. (A 2000 estimate put the population of Kagel and Lopez canyons at roughly 700.)

The Kagel Canyon Civic Association last year, for example, claimed just over 150 members. Its central meeting place is Dexter Park, which still serves as a site for community dances and sporting events, civic meetings, and, the Sunday after the fundraiser at The Hideaway, a clothing drive for victims of the Creek Fire.

There are no sidewalks or or sewers in Kagel Canyon, and residents rely on well water.

At 3:09 a.m. on December 5, Susan Friend-Letourneur and her husband Nelson Letourneur were wakened by a phone call. Letourneur worried it could be his family calling with urgent news from South Africa. But when he picked up the phone, there was nobody on the other line. No number was listed.

The couple—who had met in Kagel Canyon, when they moved in across the street from one another nearly 20 years earlier—went back to bed. Neither could fall asleep.

Thirty minutes later, Friend-Letourneur smelled smoke. She and Letourneur walked outside to find the bright orange glow of flames racing toward their property, an 11-acre horse ranch called Goldspirit Farms.

They rushed inside to call their neighbors using an emergency one-call system set up by the Kagel Canyon Civic Association, then packed up their nine cats and secured the house. They turned on all the lights so firefighters could spot the home. They opened up their front gate so emergency vehicles could pass through. They placed wet towels along the doorways to keep the smoke out.

It was a routine they’d already mastered. They had done it during the deadly Sand Fire, which scorched parts of Kagel Canyon the summer before, and the destructive Marek Fire, which ravaged nearly 5,000 acres in 2008.

The Creek Fire was worse. Exacerbated by dry Santa Ana winds that reached speeds of 80 miles per hour in some parts of the mountains, the blaze burned rapidly and took more than 2.5 weeks to fully contain.

“If we hadn’t woken up, I mean, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” says Friend-Letourneur.

Left: Susan Friend-Letourneur. Center: The Hideaway. Right: “Trash.”

Ron Haley, a white-bearded Vietnam War veteran better known to friends and neighbors as Trash—a nickname he gave to himself back when he frequently got into bar fights—moved to Kagel Canyon after his release from prison “for this, that, and the other thing” in 1989, drawn to its mountains and its quiet.

Among the locals, he’s best known for playing Santa Claus at the neighborhood’s annual Christmas party. When the Creek Fire erupted, Trash jumped on his motorcycle and started “honking my horn like a fool and screaming at people” to get them out of the house.

He thought for sure his own “little shanty” would be turned to rubble. When he found out it was spared, “the euphoria that just poured over me, it was mind-boggling,” he says. “Because my wife’s ashes are in there. Not really much else I cared about.”

Conna, meanwhile, woke up to the smell of smoke. He threw on his respirator, goggles, and the fire-resistant Nomex suit he wore to drive racecars and sprang into action, working to hook up a neighbor’s garden hose to help spray down the flames in the lower canyon.

“Everybody was playing a different part. The people on East Trail and West Trail, they have a great view of everything, so a lot of these people were basically calling in spot fires [to the fire department],” he says. “They’d look over and say, ‘Hey, we see a spot smoking.’ Or they’d relay a message and go, ‘Hey, Eddie, what’s the house two houses down from you, what’s the street number?’”

Because the Los Angeles firefighters were already stretched thin battling other wildfires in the area, many of the crews who responded to the Creek Fire were from other cities and had no familiarity with the rugged terrain. It’s dotted with hairpin turns on two-lane dirt roads and winding mountain routes tiny enough for only motorcycles or dirt bikes to pass through.

“They didn’t know where addresses were. They didn’t know where streets were,” Conna says.

Then there was the challenge of infrastructure. “When these guys got to Upper Kagel, they said, ‘Where are the fire hydrants?’” Conna recalls. “My neighbors up there who stayed were like, ‘We don’t have fire hydrants. We’re all on wells or trucked water.’ And they’re like, ‘What?’”

The neighborhood’s reliance on well water is far from its only idiosyncratic, seemingly anachronistic quirk. There are no sidewalks or sewers, and because it’s located just outside the Los Angeles city limits, the community relies on a family-run trash service that operates out of a converted pick-up truck.

“There was one point when the county was trying to get the big automated trash trucks [up here] and we were like, ‘It would be a disaster. You can barely get fire trucks around here.’ So there was a big letter-writing campaign, and it was defeated,” says Chris Ahern, a director at the Kagel Canyon Civic Association. Ahern, who on a recent Sunday volunteered at the clothing drive at Dexter Park, works as a gaffer in the entertainment industry and has lived in Kagel Canyon with his wife and kids since 2004.

“It’s great because we know our trash men and we know our mailman, Carlos,” he says. “We just know all these people. Like, anywhere else in Los Angeles, you’re not going to know your trash man. It’s ridiculous, right?”

To many residents, that sense of community makes the looming threat of disaster—from fires to mudslides to earthquakes—well worth the risk of living in an isolated canyon.

“A lot of my friends, when they found out what was going on, they’re like, ‘Why do you even live there? You should move,’” says Ahern. “And more than ever, I love this canyon. The way this canyon came together and always does.”

Editor: Jenna Chandler