November 14, 2018

Photo Essay: Things We Lost In the Woolsey Fire (Before & After Photos, Updated)

[Last updated 1/26/19 6:37 PM PT]
[Updated 1/6/19 8:15 PM PT with new "after" photos and reports from the burn area]

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. (Stay tuned for my separate photo essay on the status of the Western Town.)

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

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

...and a few brick walls standing.

The park is currently closed because of too many safety hazards, and you can't see much from the street.

Thankfully, the Woolsey Fire 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.

circa 2019

Seeing that bridge is a real moment of reckoning. Every motorist who approaches it from the east stops to take a moment and gawk and marvel at it.

circa 2019

According to management at Cornell Winery, access to which has been truncated, maintenance crews had "...left many large tree stumps and branches under [the bridge] which ignited and created a campfire that burned for hours underneath." Hence the melting.

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.

circa 2019

It, too, is currently closed and cordoned off, with nothing visible from the driveway.

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.

circa 2019

Google Maps now lists it as "Permanently Closed."

[Updated] And the site that Malibu Creek State Park is most famous for—the set from the TV show M*A*S*H—was also hit, particularly the shed and the directional sign, the latter of which survived but needs repair, according to the Conejo Valley Guide. No word on interpretive signage, but the vehicles survived. While the trail to it is open, there are many hazards resulting from the fire along the way.

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.

Update 11/22/18 9:46 PM PT—Click here for "before" and "after" photos of the burn area at Corral Canyon and Corral Creek Bridge, where the Woolsey Fire reached the Pacific Ocean in Malibu

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

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