Residents Dig In As Officials Demand Evacuation Of Los Angeles Area Forest

ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) -- Trish De Somma considers herself the eyes and ears of the patch of national forest near Los Angeles where her family leases a cabin. Forest fire officials see De Somma and others like her as a liability living amid hills and canyons of kindling-dry pines and brush.

In an extreme effort to prevent October wildfires as catastrophic and deadly as those last year, all but a fraction of the sprawling Angeles National Forest has been closed.

No hunting, no hiking, no camping. And for scores _ possibly hundreds _ of residents such as De Somma, an unprecedented order: No staying put.

Forest officials are contacting forest dwellers individually, and haven't reached De Somma. But she and her cluster of neighbors appear to fit the criteria and suspect their small wooden cabins are among those targeted by this week's mandate. She's still there.

``I'm not going to leave until somebody drags me forcibly,'' she said, standing in the kitchen of her cabin, which is served only by a narrow dirt road. ``I'm very aware that it's high fire season because it's been like this forever here.''

U.S. Forest Service officials say the people in cabins clustered throughout the forest don't understand how bad this fire season could be. If there are fires anything close to those that burned Southern California last year _ when 24 people were killed and 3,650 homes destroyed _ they fear people tucked so far into a forest roughly the size of Rhode Island will be killed.

This is the third year the forest has been closed, but the first De Somma and others who live on federal land have been told that, like the general public, they must go.

``You can't base future concerns on the past behavior because we've never seen these kinds of conditions before,'' said forest spokeswoman Sherry Rollman. Already this year, four fires have raced across the forest with shocking ferocity, burning 17,091 acres of national land and 35,000 acres overall.

``We can't stress enough the danger residents are in,'' Rollman said.

Forest Service officials have persuaded at least some of the residents to pack up and leave.

They met with residents of an 80-cabin cluster called Chantry Flats Wednesday night to explain their reasoning.

Steve Burns, who for 25 years has shared a cabin three miles from the nearest road, said he felt much more comfortable with the order after listening alongside about 35 others to the presentation. Residents weren't happy with the short notice, but planned to comply.

``I think initially they've done the right thing,'' he said, ``but I think we needed a little more time.''

De Somma and other residents don't plan to comply. They insist there will be ample time to flee if fire threatens and worry vacant homes make inviting targets for arsonists or burglars.

And anyway, they say, they can look after both themselves and the forest.

De Somma, 49, recalls when car thieves set afire two stolen vehicles in the middle of a remote canyon last year. Members of her community immediately called firefighters, likely preventing a serious blaze.

``For the first time as an American, I feel that I'm being treated like a citizen from a Third World country, with people telling me I have to do something for reasons I don't understand at all,'' she said.

At 680,000 acres, the Angeles National Forest is called the nation's largest ``urban forest'' for its proximity to Los Angeles.

The location is both a blessing and a curse. The forest hosts more than 32 million visitors annually and reaps fees from 1,800 special permits for cellular phone towers, movie filming, dams and campgrounds.

But the heavy public use also makes the forest more vulnerable to arsonists, as well as accidental blazes caused by city-bred hikers and campers unfamiliar with how to handle fire.

Over the past two years, all but a handful of the forest's hundreds of blazes were human-caused, a quarter of them arsons. In response, forest managers have closed the forest to the general public, but let residents with permits for recreational cabins stay on.

The 570 cabins, built in the 1920s and 1930s and now leased by residents, are not intended for year-round living, though some people do just that. About 120 are now subject to evacuation until a major rain douses fire season, among them about 80 homes in Chantry Flats accessible only by up to a four-mile hike into the wilderness. Forest officials said Thursday those cabins are now empty.

Forest officials cite Chantry Flats as a terrifying example. It has no roads for fire trucks and computer modeling shows a fast-moving blaze would block the only access trail, destroying all the cabins in less than five hours _ without even considering the deadly Santa Ana winds that have already started to blow.

In the last two fire seasons, about 100 recreational cabins burned and firefighters' efforts were hampered by the time and energy spent evacuating people while the fires roared, said Stanton Florea, fire information officer.

While Chantry Flats is being emptied, other cabin owners can apply for a temporary access waiver. Those who live within a few hundred yards of a two-lane county or state road have been be allowed to stay on, Rollman said.

``They're doing this as a precautionary thing and how much can you do in a precautionary stance?'' asked John Bush, one of those remaining, as he raked dry pine needles around his cabin situated near a main road. ``I think I'd get hurt more crossing the street in town.''

But some residents such as Bush are worried the mandatory evacuation order could be expanded as the fire season progresses _ something forest officials acknowledge is a possibility. Others suggest the order presages a Forest Service effort to permanently evict recreational cabin dwellers.

``When the fire season is over, and it's rainy season, is there going to be a flood order?'' asked De Somma. ``When you really think about it, a meteor could come out of the sky. It's crazy.''