The threat of fire and a century to prepare

Written by
Evan Chapman in his 1972 fire truck.

Southern California fire officials are predicting the worst wildfire season in 100 years. If you live in a wooded community, make sure you clean roofs and gutters regularly, stack firewood at least 100 feet away from your home and clear at least a 30-foot zone of flammable shrubs and leaves and other fire fuel. One man is taking preparedness to new heights.

Evan Chapman LOVES to give tours of his remote, 40-acre mountain ranch. His grandparents, Clarence and Eleanor Chapman, first came to Mt. Baldy from Ohio on their honeymoon in 1901 and decided to stay. They built a small home and later added a resort for skiers and hikers. And for four generations, the Chapmans have continued adding to the ranch.

It now includes four sturdy wooden sheds where Evan tinkers with all kinds of things making tools with his kids, cutting wood, collecting model trains and recycling old John Deer engines. He admits: “My collecting has outpaced my shedding. My ability to build sheds to put my collection in.”

The last shed Evan shows me contains two full sized, sparkling red fire trucks. They are over thirty years old, but in immaculate condition: polished chrome valves, nozzles and gauges. On the walls I see neatly displayed respirators, fire hoses, shovels, fire-resistant jackets, pick axes and two-way-radios, everything completely functional and ready to go. “We actually have four fire trucks,” says Evan. “I don’t know whether that’s a bragging point or not. That might be a point where it’s tipping.” The Chapman’s have cobbled together a serious homemade fire protection system including underground pipe, wells and gigantic water tanks on their property, which is dotted with bright yellow fire hydrants.

Evan’s obsession with fire protection isn’t just a quirk. He remembers a big fire in 1980. Back then Evan was 14 years old, his brother ten.”The whole Mount Baldy area was on fire. It was pitch black. You couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t see anything!”

The Chapman family fought the flames for 24 hours. The next morning the area looked like a moonscape populated with black tree skeletons. More than 70 houses went up in flames that day – including the resort Evan’s grandparents had built 65 years before. But the Chapman ranch survived. Since then the family has invested more than a hundred thousand dollars and a lifetime of hard work protecting it from the next wild fire.

“I probably wouldn’t own fire trucks if I just had a house. But there is so much history! We want to pass it on to our kids. In California there’s not many folks that have been in one place for over 100 years!”

Walking along the railroad tracks, Evan pulls dry weeds from the side of the hill. He looks towards the top of the canyon, worry in his eyes. “The bottom line is: if the fire goes through and it’s going to be bad, there’s not a whole lot you can do. It’s sad to say that but if it’s a bad fire we’re gonna put up a good fight but we’re probably going to loose a lot of stuff.”

This year the canyon got only 13 inches of rain compared to the usual 36. Soon, warm and dry Santa Ana winds will come blowing from the desert. And Evan and his family will be much better prepared than they were thirty years ago.