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Things They Lost in the Fire

Four generations of Lombardis had lived in the tiny red house in Saugus. The buckweed blaxe took it all away

Photographs by Ryan Romero
 

Sometimes a house grows old with its first owners; sometimes it has many reincarnations, but rarely do the partings occur without a good-bye. Bags are packed, snapshots taken. There’s that last echoey communion in the empty room after the moving truck has departed. When a house goes suddenly, the leaving isn’t wistful— it’s traumatic and lasting. That doesn’t happen often, but this fall it did to thousands of households in Southern California.

The little red house behind the farm stand at the Lombardi Ranch in Saugus was among 21 homes that burned in the Santa Clarita Valley’s Buckweed fire. It was a modest place, scarcely built for calamity, wood inside and out. The house, which was 1,200 square feet, looked more or less the way it did when it was constructed in the early 1940s. Four generations of Lombardis had lived there by the time the fire swept through nine days before Halloween, blackening 38,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of 15,000 people.

In 1947, Robert R. and Josephine Piani Lombardi, children of Italian-born truck farmers in the San Fernando Valley, bought 140 acres they had been leasing to grow potatoes. The land happened to come with a weekend cabin near the property’s boundary on Bouquet Canyon Road. The young couple moved in with their two small children, and the house was where their son, Bob, and daughter, Linda, grew up. Years later Bob and his wife, Joann, lived for a while with the elder Lombardis. Eventually they took over the ranch, erecting a house just up the hill, where they raised four children. The produce stand and pumpkin patch became a local institution, and Bob and Joann’s grown children all pitched in to help during the busy Halloween season.

Bob and Joann’s oldest daughter, Julia, moved into the vacant house shortly after graduating from college. She married Peter Kaulbach, a prop maker, and until the fire they were raising a son and a daughter there. A rustic place to begin with—the walls weren’t quite straight, the cupboards only closed some of the time, and the windows were temperamental—the house was in constant need of repair. Over the years Julia and Peter replaced the aging asphalt tile with a hardwood floor and carpeting. But major renovation of the place, Julia says, somehow smacked of betrayal. “My family is all very nostalgic. They didn’t like us to change anything.” The fire, of course, did just that, in a gust of hot wind and a few hours of chaos. But it couldn’t wipe out years of one family, one roof, a shared life.

BOB LOMBARDI: That house was my first memory. My dad didn’t have the key to the front door, so he opened these two back windows, and he picked me up and set me down inside. I was two years old. Maybe two, three cars would come by the ranch the whole day. When people would drive up the road, I’d go behind the house right there and hide from ’em.

JOANN LOMBARDI: I was born in Michigan, but I grew up in Westchester. My parents relocated when I was three. Bob and I had met in college, at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I remember Bob bringing me up here and thinking, “Where in the world is he taking me?” There was nothing out here. We drove up what seemed this incredibly long driveway, which wasn’t that long really, but to me, coming from the city, it seemed to go on forever, and then coming up to the house—I loved the house. When I was a kid, we’d go back to Michigan—my dad came from a farming family— and we’d go visit the farms of our relatives, and it reminded me of those houses.

BOB: All the holidays—my dad had three brothers—we’d get together at one another’s houses. We had bagna caldas here. You know what a bagna calda is? A bagna calda is a garlic—what do you call it?—fondue. Garlic and anchovies and olive oil, and you dip vegetables in there. Celery, green peppers, red peppers, big thing of French bread. We’d clear out the garage, take my mother’s car out, and put big tables in there, and we’d have all the Italian people we knew, from all over the San Fernando Valley. Gettin’ kinda cold? Meant we’re gonna have a bagna calda. Have it around Easter— next day you’d go to church and nobody’d sit next to you.

JOANN: My mother-in-law took me under her wing. She was a quiet lady. Very pleasant. Very soft-spoken. And she loved this house. It was all wood inside. All tongue-and-groove, and she would polish that wood, even the rafters. She loved to cook—lasagna, gnocchi. This was where I learned to make spaghetti sauce.

JULIA KAULBACH: My grandmother used to baby-sit me when I was little. I was probably three or four years old, but I can remember being there with her. I can remember her and my mom making fresh tomato sauce. There was no air-conditioning, and it would be steaming and the middle of summer. The afternoon sun would be coming through the front window, and it would be all steamy and hot and smelly from those tomatoes being boiled down. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with her sorting through pinto beans for little rocks. That would be my job.

JOANN: The house was vacant a couple of years. Then Julia came home from college. She convinced us she should live in this house. So we fixed it up for her.

JULIA: I was used to doing what I wanted to do, and coming back to my parents’ house, they had rules for me and I didn’t care to follow them. I’d gotten a job, but it was real entry level and didn’t pay much, and I wanted to buy a condo—I wish now I’d found a way, but I couldn’t afford it. So my sister and I convinced my dad to let us clean up the house. And I moved into it.

There was about seven years’ worth of dust, all my grandparents’ stuff . We spent weeks and weeks cleaning it out. It was very cool. We’d go, “Oh, I remember this!” and “Gosh, why did they keep this?” You know how, when people get older, they sort of collect things that make no sense? My grandfather must have had 40 hotel keys. I don’t know why. Maybe it was, like, a souvenir, because they used to travel. There probably were a hundred nail clippers in there. We found boxes and boxes of pencils and pens. But this is a Lombardi trait—we never throw anything away.

I loved my grandmother’s rosebushes. I loved the whole thing—it was a beautiful little house. The living room was my favorite room. It was the warmest. We had the stove in there, and when I was a kid, that’s where we’d gather. That’s where the Christmas tree went. In the winter, that was the room we’d heat, because there was no central heating. You’d hang out there until it was time to go to bed and then open it up and hope some of the heat went to the bedroom. You might say it was a house only a family could love.

It was built in the middle of World War II, when things were scarce, so it was built with whatever they could get. There were probably four or five colors of asphalt tile in there, none very attractive—dark brown and brick red and a kind of off -white and a green I don’t even know how to describe, artistically arranged as much as possible. There were rugs, a wool rug in the living room and a braided rug in the dining room. The furniture was so full of dust that when you sat on it, a huge cloud would come up. Which was not so terrible, from an aff ectionate point of view. But then I got sick. I got leukemia. It was 1999. I was, like, 26 or 27, and when I got out of the hospital, the doctors told me I couldn’t have dust flying around. My family wanted me to move to a nice, clean apartment. But I was kind of adamant. I loved that house so much, I couldn’t bear to leave.

So my husband and I—we were together by then—lived in an apartment for a year, but we just brought over the bare essentials. A bed, a couch. Everything else stayed at the house. It was near Christmas when we moved back in. I was determined to get back to myself as a normal person. That house was part of my normal self.

ON THE AFTERNOON OF SUNDAY, October 21—as Southern California recorded its 24th month of drought conditions and gale-force Santa Anas coursed in from the desert—a patch of dry brush caught fire in the 11700 block of West Mint Canyon Road in Agua Dulce, an unincorporated area northeast of Santa Clarita. Within seconds, it was out of control and roaring south. Later, arson investigators would trace the blaze to the Carousel Ranch, where the ten-year-old son of a family of ranch hands would confess to playing with matches. Witnesses would describe the boy’s parents frantically slapping towels at the flames as they exploded up and away, over the hills.

BOB: About two hours before it happened, I smelled smoke. I was just down there, outside the fruit stand, and I looked and saw a little puff up on the hill, and I said, “This is not good.” This same thing happened around 1970, same weather, same big Santa Anas—it just didn’t burn our houses. About 45 minutes later, you could see the actual pattern—clear on that side and clear on this side and coming right at us in between. The fire came in from the northeast and blew in at an angle. The wind was blowing so hard it was blowing me off the hill almost. There was a tree up there, and I had to grab onto a little branch to keep from rolling away.

JOANN: That should have been our busiest day of the whole, entire year, that Sunday. It always is—the end of October, just before Halloween. We had pony rides and a country- western band. There were probably a thousand people here. It was about 2:15 in the afternoon. I tried to be calm. I was responsible for all these people. I couldn’t freak out until afterward. I said, “Select your pumpkins, we’re closing.” But oh, my goodness, you couldn’t help but smell it coming. I don’t think people comprehended the danger. Some came back later and said, “I was here that Sunday, and we had no idea.” But unless you’ve lived through it, I guess you don’t know.

There were a couple people who didn’t want to leave. My son Rob had to get aggressive with one father who was here with his six-year-old son. We have a maze in that cornfield, and they wanted to go into the corn maze. My son told them no, we’re evacuating— by that time we were using the evacuation word—and they said OK. But then my son looked in his rearview mirror, and the man was going back into the maze! With his six-year-old son! They would have died of smoke inhalation! It was very shortly after that we were inundated. Rob had to go back and watch the man physically move.

JULIA: I had off ered to take my nieces and nephews over to my house. I had my daughter, but my son was at a birthday party. The kids wanted to make cookies, but we didn’t have electricity because the wind had knocked the power out. So we were in the living room, playing a board game, when I went outside and smelled smoke.

I called my husband at a friend’s house and said, “You know, this kind of smells close—why don’t you come home?” My husband is really good at distracting kids, so he comes in and says, “Everything’s fine—look at the blue sky!” And then he goes, “Let’s watch a video!” He says to me, “Quit packing clothes. Start packing stuff .” So I got out the photos and important papers, and my sister comes and picks up her kids, and she says, “I’m going to get the dogs in the truck and the cat,” and I put the baby in the other car. So that all our living things were packed up.

You never really think it’s going to happen. You think, “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life, not to me.” I went through the house saying, “Can I live without this? How sad would I be if I lost that?” I took both our cameras. I took some pictures on the wall. Our first family picture. A collage of pictures of my family. A picture of my husband and his brother, their baby passport pictures that his mom had given me—they were born in Holland. Our wedding album. Our honeymoon album. An album with our kids. My son is ten, so he likes brand-name everything, and I had to grab his Quiksilver shirt and his wrestling guys and Matchbox cars. And a couple of the baby’s books. And some clothes. We had a dresser that belonged to my dad when he was a little boy, and I remembered at the last minute that there were some baby clothes of his in a drawer, and I grabbed those.

JOANN: I went to see to the animals. We had a horse, two ponies, two donkeys, a llama, an emu, a cow, several sheep, goats—we had a petting zoo. We had ducks and geese and turkeys and guinea hens. We didn’t have anything to get them out on because they’re not our animals, we lease them from someone. When I tried calling the woman we lease from, she was inundated with the animals that were remaining at her place. We didn’t know what to do. My daughter-in-law and I got one pony and the emu—I didn’t know what we were thinking, I realize now there’s no way we would have made it out of the canyon, but we started walking them out. Fortunately, somebody was evacuating some horses and they saw us and pulled up on the road and said, “I think I have room for those animals.” They opened the back door, and we literally stuff ed those animals into the trailers. They were holding the rump of the pony so we could close the door.

By that time the flames were all the way down to the road. My daughter was screaming. I didn’t know where Bob was. My son came back and let all the rest of the animals out—the horse and the donkey went up to our house, the sheep went up into the sunflowers to hide. The cow—her name is Jellybean— her pen was opened, too, but she never walked out. I didn’t want to leave, but then Bob called me on my cell phone, saying some burning boxes had gone up against our house. Rob said, “Mom,” and—just the way he said it. We left. He about threw me in his welding truck.

BOB: I had gone to the top of the hill to see where the fire was. Rob had gone with me, and we watched it come. We split up and I went to my house, which overlooks the farm and the other houses, and I remembered from a fire one time before that you were supposed to close all your windows. We had an air conditioner in one of the windows. I pulled the window up and shoved it out and closed the window, fast, closed all the windows. I think maybe that kind of saved our house. We went and got buckets. There were these big bales of straw all over the place. Every five minutes they’d call me: “You comin’ down? You gotta come down!” But the thing came so fast. I had to make sure that what I had left was still left.

We had some storage containers, and they were burning, and the wind blew some cardboard boxes right up against our fence. Then the shrubbery started to burn. I put out the thing with a hose, and then I walked up over the side of the hill and looked down at the old house. When I went to look, my heart dropped.

JULIA: When I went back a day later, I thought I’d start crying. But my imagination was much worse than actually seeing it. Don’t get me wrong, it was bad. But once I saw it, it sort of solidified things. I was able to say, “That’s done.” More than one person has said to me, “Oh, now you can get all new stuff !” If you look at it that way, it’s—well, you know. We couldn’t stand our refrigerator. Now we can get one we like. There’s always a positive that comes with the negative. But I was so tied to that house that I think I wasn’t able to move forward with a lot of things. My family and I probably should have moved out ten years ago.

BOB: My daughter and son-in-law, they’ll want to go build their own house now. So I don’t think we’ll be rebuilding that house. Too many memories in the one that was there.

JULIA: It was a huge blow to the whole family, not just my immediate family. My dad’s cousins. My cousins. You can’t really replace something like that.

 

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