Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Photo Essay: Things We Lost In the Woolsey Fire 2018 (Before Photos)

The Woolsey Fire that broke out last week has been the most destructive of any Southern California wildfire since I moved here nearly eight years ago.

Not so much in terms of loss of life—but loss of life's work and livelihood.

So far, 85% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has burned—but this is no forest fire.

The blazes ripped through natural resources and habitat, public parks, historic sites, and even the old western movie set at Paramount Ranch, some of which dated back 90 or so years.

It destroyed the house at Peter Strauss Ranch in Cornell...

...leaving only a fireplace/chimney...

...and a few brick walls standing.

Thankfully, it spared the businesses across the street...

...including The Old Place and Cornell Winery...

...but it took out the steel bridge you need to take to get to them.

In Malibu Creek State Park, the former Fox movie ranch where Planet of the Apes was shot...

...the Woolsey Fire took out the original barn and stables of Reagan Ranch...

...a thoroughbread horse farm called "Yearling Row" that Ron owned and frequented with Nancy from 1951 to 1966, right before being elected Governor of California.

It had become a popular area of the park for both hikers and equestrians (especially along the Yearling Trail), with a planned equestrian campground in the works.

Om the other side if the park, the recently restored Sepulveda Adobe also succumbed to the fire.

The 155-year-old historic site survived the 1994 Northridge earthquake (though it was badly damaged)...

...but was gutted by the fire, leaving only a shell.

Built in 1863 and occupied by homesteader Don Pedro Alcantara Sepulveda and his family... hadn't been occupied since 1980.

It hadn't even reopened to the public yet, its restoration was so recent.

And the site that Malibu Creek State Park is most famous for—the set from the TV show M*A*S*H—was also ravaged. But since the set was mostly the natural landscape and no structures—just vehicles and interpretive signage—there's not much to rebuilt. Nature will take its course.

Farther west down Mulholland Highway, Saddlerock Ranch—home of Malibu Wine Safaris—lost 95% of its structures, including barns and other exotic animal enclosures. Stanley the giraffe survived after sheltering in place.

Most of the other animals did, too—though one sheep is still missing, and a llama experienced a burned front hoof.

What's really scary isn;t so much where the Woolsey Fire went—but where it started.

Fire sparked (probable from SoCal Edison electrical ultility equipment) at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, where nuclear tests 60 years ago were so dangerous that staffers had to view them from a underground control center containing a periscope.

In its time of operation, at least four of the 10 nuclear reactors had accidents, and there were numerous fires throughout the field lab in its history. Overheated power cells were "ventilated," releasing radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In a 1959 incident involving a partial meltdown of the SRE power plant, radioactive gasses were emitted into the atmosphere. Cleanup for that didn't even start until 1975. The public wasn't informed of any of it until the information leaked 20 years later. (The site was demolished and removed in 1999.)

Chemicals were illegally disposed of in metal drums placed into fire pits, where they would be shot at and explode, releasing the contaminants into the air. Among the chemical compounds spilled around these testing sites was TCE (trichloroethylene), which was used to flush the engines and the fuel systems prior to testing. Lots of exotic chemicals have made their way into the groundwater.

The Department of Energy and the Department of Toxic Substances Control claim that a fire ripping through this badly contaminated site poses no more danger than any other wildfire would.

But on a tour in 2014, guides admitted that the clean-up crews were keeping the most contaminated structures for last.

Why? So they have somewhere to store radioactive materials before they end up at some California hazardous waste landfill (in Buttonwillow or Kettleman Hills).

That means that whatever did burn at Santa Susana would definitely pose a danger. It would definitely release radioactive material to land on neighboring houses and cars and be breathed in by local residents and their animals.

There's no denying that.

But right now, we don't know what's gone and what's left at Santa Susana—including any of the historic testing structures that had been landmarked.

And we don't know what else the Woolsey Fire took, either. I'll keep this post updated as I get more information.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: In the Line of Fire 
Surveilling the Santa Monica Mountains For Smoke
Photo Essay: Solstice Canyon

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Photo Essay: The Rendon Hotel, from Red Light District to Arts District

"Was this area ever nice?" my friend asked me as we were waiting to get into the latest art installation at the Rendon Hotel, Stories.

Photo: William Reagh (LAPL Photo Collection, 1964)

"Uhhh... no."

Google Street View circa 2011

I didn't mean to be dismissive. But as developers try to gentrify the corner of 7th and Santa Fe—about 800 feet from the LA River's left bank and about a half-mile from the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail freight depot and yard (now an architecture school, Sci-Arc)—the area's history persists.

Photo: Diane Cockerill (Courtesy Cartwheel Art)

What's now known as the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles was once a makeshift red-light district for railroad workers who were housed there temporarily. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it essentially served as an extension of The Nickel and Skid Row—just a little farther east down 5th Street.

The Rendon Hotel served its purpose for the neighborhood at the time—as a flophouse and probably a brothel, too. (The more famous flophouse in the district is the American Hotel on Hewitt and Traction, home to punk rock and Al's Bar.)

Just like the old saloons of the Wild West, it had a number of drinking establishments on the first floor...

...from the Topaz Cafe and Pete's Club Santa Fe in 1964 (see photo above)..., most recently, Licha's Bar and Grill.

For the last few years, the bar and the hotel have been occupied mostly by film crews.

But this year, everything old is new again—and the space has been reinvigorated with a series of art installations and immersive (though not interactive) performances.

Audiences were invited to peek through windows and holes in the wall and stand in doorways, observing the goings-on in many of the single occupancy rooms—one of which, presumably, having been the scene of a murder.

Given the hotel's history of rooms rented by the hour, replete with timers and a control board...

...and the communal bathrooms in the hallways...

...the "fly on the wall" experience wasn't nearly as X-rated as I expected.

Then again, the concept of the Arts District isn't new. The conversion started at least as early as the 1970s, and maybe even the 1960s (depending on who you ask).

And parts of it—like right around the Rendon Hotel—still look pretty post-industrial apocalyptic.

But the LA River is getting a facelift, with new bridges. And the Arts District continues to get new bars and loft-style condos. If developers had their way, there'd be no room left for art in the Arts District.

So, it's exciting to see something happening in one of those old buildings—something that retains its grit and revels in its history.

Special thanks to Eric Brightwell for filling in some gaps of my knowledge of the area. Read Eric's blog on the Arts District here. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Linda Vista Hospital Comes Alive With "The Groundskeepers"
Dancers Descend Upon the Semi-Vacant Crenshaw Hospital

Monday, November 5, 2018

Photo Essay: Ojai Raptor Center Open House

I will visit an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility any day before I'll buy a ticket to another zoo.

At the Ojai Raptor Center, the priority is to rerelease wayward birds into the wild if possible. Unfortunately, it's not always possible—as is the case with Riley, an Eastern screech owl who got partially blinded in his right eye in Louisville, Kentucky. He can see OK, but not well enough to hunt for his survival.

Gavin, a peregrine falcon born in 2012, somehow broke his left wing.

It never healed right.

And now he works as an ambassador to teach people about birds of prey.

Born 2005, Bob the American kestrel (once called sparrow hawk, and the most common falcon in North America) suffers from the most preventable injury to a wild bird: He imprinted on humans as a baby.

The same thing happened to Handsome, a turkey vulture born the same year in Louisville, Kentucky. Although their presence seems foreboding (because of their penchant to stack on dead carcasses), turkey vultures are actually very social animals—and because Handsome also imprinted, he can never be released.

As cute as these birds are—and as much as it may seem like they love us—if we try to baby them, even as we rescue them, we fail them.

It was unavoidable with Bailey, a Great Horned Owl born just last year.

She'd been abandoned after she fell out of her nest

And when she was found as a nestling, she had severe infections that needed to be treated.

She needed so much care that the poor baby couldn't help but imprint on her handlers.

And now, she'll never know life in the wild.

Not all the raptors who come to the Ojai Raptor Center make it. Some of those that don't—like the long-eared owl above—get taxidermied and their stuffed bodies help the center educate the public, even after their spirits have passed.

It's probably the one chance most of us will have to pet the exposed belly of a barn owl...

...or get a good, up-close look at its distinctive face.

Of course, it's tragic to view red-tailed, red-shouldered, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks with cotton for eyes and mounted on a stick.

But there's a beauty to the tragedy. At least for the birds who don't survive, it's not all for naught.

Their fragile, dead bodies can teach us to not poison the living with rodenticide, to not make friends with them or cuddle the abandoned babies, to not feed them human food or try to tame them.

We can still admire them—but it's best to do it from afar.

Related Posts:
To Look an Owl in the Eyes
Photo Essay: Walking with a Hawk
Photo Essay: Falcon Flight
Photo Essay: Moore Laboratory of Zoology, Closed to Public
Photo Essay: The Birds of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology