S. Calif. Fire Torches Public Lands

S. Calif. Fire Torches Public Lands

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Southern Californians faced with the loss of lives and homes in a huge wildfire are also grappling with the destruction of a vast swath of public lands that are popular destinations for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.

The Woolsey fire has charred more than 83 percent of National Park Service land within the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreational Area, where officials announced Wednesday that all trails were closed.

"We understand that folks are curious about how their favorite park spots fared. We promise to share that ASAP," the park service tweeted, warning that the blaze was still active after burning for nearly a week. At least two people have died as a result of fire that's destroyed more than 500 homes while consuming 152 square miles (394 square kilometers) of brush and timber.

The fire broke out Nov. 8 and quickly became one of the largest and most destructive in state history. It was 52 percent contained. Firefighters have made steady progress this week but warned many hotspots remain.

The massive burn scar encompasses more than 30 square miles (80 square kilometers) within the recreation area that stretches from beaches inland to mountains straddling Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It's the largest urban national park in the nation, with more than 30 million visitors every year.

Cyril Jay-Rayon, 52, watched the news with despair as flames engulfed what he called his "main playground" — a rugged area where he rode his mountain bike a few times a week. It includes the famous Backbone Trail, a 65-mile (104-kilometer) route that offers challenging terrain for bikers and hikers who are rewarded with soaring views of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's just devastating. Those trails are my sanity. It's where I ground myself," he said. "I love the city but I also love how easy it is to get out into the wild."

Humans share their recreation areas with wildlife including 13 mountain lions tracked by biologists via GPS collars. Park officials said three of the big cats were unaccounted for — including P-22, who was famously photographed in LA's Griffith Park with the Hollywood sign in the background.

Four monitored bobcats are also believed to have survived, but their habitats have been burned, according to the National Park Service.

While damage assessments were still being made, officials confirmed that Paramount Ranch's "Western Town," a landmark film location dating back to 1927 that included a jail, hotel and saloon, burned to the ground. The TV shows "Westworld," ''The Mentalist" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" were among the many productions that shot there.

Officials took the loss of Western Town especially hard, because it was a unique feature among all the national parks.

"It's so special to share the story of moviemaking that came out of Southern California," said spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall. "We're the only National Park Service site that interprets American film history." She said there's been an outpouring of public support for rebuilding the site.

At least three homes of park employees were gutted, Kuykendall said.

The fire also destroyed much of nearby Peter Strauss Ranch, which hosted performances by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson in the 1950s and more recently was a wedding destination.

Jay-Rayon, 52, said customers at the sports-nutrition store he owns were coming to terms with the fact that it could be months if not longer before they'd be able to ride or hike their favorite wilderness areas again.

Also charred was Cheeseboro Canyon, former ranch land that featured trails through rolling grasslands against the backdrop of peaks and canyons. After winter and spring rains, the area is awash in green, but vegetation quickly dries in the persistent sun, fading to yellow and then brown. Grasses and other plants were brittle in the weeks before the fire started.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said he may visit the Woolsey burn area Thursday, if conditions permit.

About 15 percent of the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreational Area is National Park Service land. The remainder is made up of private property, California State Parks and other conservation lands.

(KA)