THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

LIFE AND DEATH IN BAILEY CANYON

``The wind bloweth where it will,
and thou hearest the voice thereof,
but knowest not whence it cometh
and whither it goeth.''

From the New Testament, John 3:8.

About two hundred yards north of our home in Sierra Madre, California, there is a rugged fissure in the San Gabriel mountains known as Bailey Canyon. This is a story about life and death in Bailey Canyon during a period of about five months in 1993-94.

The home in Sierra Madre in which we lived for many years was not much more than a stone's throw from the mouth of Bailey Canyon. As canyons go it is not very special, indeed it is a rather short canyon that does not penetrate much more than about half a mile into the San Gabriel foothills. But it is a steep and rugged place. After about a quarter of a mile the trail that follows the streambed ends at a twenty foot trickle of a waterfall. Only those with a strong head for heights can climb around these falls. Even that effort only allows the hiker to penetrate another hundred yards or so before a much larger cliff bars the way of all but the experienced rock climber. Perhaps because of its inaccessibility to humans, the canyon has long been the home of a den of coyotes who would venture down into the city under cover of darkness. Doreen and I would sometimes hear their plaintive howls as we lay in bed at night and, occasionally, our dogs, Scrounge and Not, would become agitated when another coyote call would fill the night, namely the yelps that signalled a successful kill. But, by and large, the coyotes coexisted fairly harmlessly with the citizens of Sierra Madre. As we were to discover, Bailey Canyon held much more lethal dangers.

Many years ago, during the great hiking era around the turn of the century, intrepid hikers constructed a trail that switchbacks up the east wall of Bailey Canyon to an elevation of about 2000ft, and then contours north to drop into a lovely little glade perched in a pocket high above the cliffs and waterfalls of the lower canyon. Here, water almost always runs in the streambed, and has allowed a substantial grove of trees to flourish and fill the shadier depths of the pocket. Years ago, someone had so loved this spot that they had carried sufficient building materials up the steep trail to construct a small stone cabin. Now, only low stone walls remain to serve as a bench or table at this delightful picnic venue. Years before, I had discovered this glade and it became a frequent goal when I needed a short but vigorous hike within easy reach of home. Many times, Not and I followed the steep trail that the Boy Scouts of Sierra Madre have taken it upon themselves to maintain through the years. The brush had grown so thick after many years without fire that it required regular maintenance to prevent the trail from becoming completely overgrown. Several times the trail reaches the firebreak on the ridge bordering the canyon and Not and I would pause there to admire the view of the city below us. When time allowed, we would sometimes continue on up the trail above the leafy glade. This climbs to a saddle at about 3300ft just north of Jones Peak (3380ft) and one can then follow the firebreak on the ridge up to the point where it joins the Mount Wilson Toll Road. Alternatively, when feeling vigorous, we would climb down from the saddle into the much larger canyon to the west, called the Little Santa Anita. In doing so, we would follow a steep and rugged wash down to the Mount Wilson trail between First Water and Orchard Camp.

And so Bailey Canyon became a familiar and pleasant refuge for me, a place that I came to rely on for its gentle and bucolic solitude. And I think this was the case for many Sierra Madre residents. Since the trail does not appear on most hiking maps only local residents knew of its existence. And the charm of the place was supplemented by the old Mater Dolorosa monastery whose quiet buildings and grounds are adjacent to the entrance of the canyon, lending a special grace to the first hundred yards of the trail. It also made the trailhead difficult for a stranger to locate.


As soon as we awoke on the morning of October 27, 1993, it was clear that this was not going to be a normal day. A great cloud of smoke arose from the Altadena foothills to the west of us and had produced a plume drifting off to the southwest. The fact that fires might occur was not too surprising for the preceding few days had been crackling dry and hot, the last gasp of a very dry summer. The previous day a number of small fires had broken out in the foothills around the Los Angeles basin and it was clear that Oct. 27 was going to be worse. The local TV stations had turned to fulltime coverage of the various fires and seemed to report a new outbreak every hour or so. Reporters had a difficult time getting close to outbreaks like that in the foothills to the west of us and thus we did not really comprehend the severity of the blaze. And so it was that I prepared to ride my bicycle to work that morning. My route takes me west-southwest and so I was soon encountering both the smoke from the Altadena fire and the hectic procession of people fleeing from it. Only then did I become aware of the seriousness of the fire. Later we learned that a homeless man who was spending the night on the slopes above Eaton canyon had started a fire to ward off the chill of the night. The fire had rapidly spread out of control and had gone roaring down and up the canyon feeding off the dense brush. It quickly reached Kinneloa Mesa above Eaton Canyon. Many expensive homes had been built on this mesa in the preceding years, and the fire leap-frogged from one expensive home to another in a seemingly haphazard fashion. The fire engine companies had responded quickly but the mesa had been developed without an adequate water supply and the firemen's hoses soon went dry. Then there was little they could do but establish a defensive line further down and organize the evacuation of people, pets, horses, vehicles and precious possessions.

It was the bottom end of this chaos through which I rode on my way to work. I also had to ride through the huge cloud of smoke downwind of the fire; this was also much greater than I expected when I set out from home. Nevertheless I reached work and began to attend to several urgent matters. The secretaries had set up a television in their office in order to follow events since many faculty and staff had homes not far from the fire. As the morning wore on it was clear that the fire was continuing to spread and had begun to move eastwards toward Sierra Madre. My alarm rose and Dana Young, one of our secretaries, was kind enough to give me a ride back home about midday. By then the fire had moved into Pasadena Glen and consumed a number of homes in that area. Doreen and I doubted that the conflagration would remain uncontrolled for much longer, but just in case, we began to load our most precious possessions into the car.

As the afternoon wore on the fire seemed to continue its inexorable progress eastward burning across the face of the mountains toward us. By late afternoon it was burning quite fiercely and had entered Hastings Canyon, the western neighbour of Bailey Canyon. We were now thoroughly alarmed. Our son, Patrick, had summoned a group of his friends who would help us evacuate if it became necessary, and we began to put more of our belongings into the panel van that one of them brought. I climbed on the roof of our house with a hose and thoroughly soaked the wooden shingles. Mind you, I was under no illusions that this would stop the fire should the wind come up and the fire come our way. But it might be effective in preventing airborne embers from igniting the roof under marginal circumstances.

We were extremely fortunate that the winds remained calm throughout the day and the fire moved relatively slowly. This allowed the authorities to summon fire tenders from many surrounding communities and to set up a line of defense along the northern boundary of Sierra Madre where the brush meets the houses. One of the critical moments came when the fire came roaring down from the ridge above the monastery. A heroic effort by the firemen stopped the blaze at this vertex, saving not only the monastery but all the houses in that vicinity.

By now the evening had come and the heat and light from the fire lent an additional, hellish aspect to the event. It was now burning fiercely up the steep walls of Bailey Canyon and all we could do was watch and pray through the awesome intensity of the event. The fire did not burn evenly. It would die down for a few minutes giving momentary hope that the worst was over. Then, having ignited the brush at the bottom of a new slope, it would explode upwards in a firestorm vaporizing and igniting all before it as it swept up the mountain. These moments, in which the flames seemed hundreds of feet tall, were awesome and terrifying. It seemed as though the flame could easily roll over and engulf us. And yet, amidst the terror, I found time to reflect with sadness on the destruction of that lovely canyon that I had so treasured. Only the most fleet-footed of animals could have escaped; surely nothing could remain of the gentle glade perched high in the back of the canyon.

Moreover, there was also human chaos all around us. Most of the local residents were terrified and many had fled their homes. Everyone who lived in the blocks of houses north of us had been evacuated earlier by the authorities so now the police were paranoid about looting. Partly to prevent this, the streets around us had been sealed off along Sierra Madre Boulevard, the main east-west street to the south of us. Indeed our daughter, Kathy, had trouble getting through this cordon when she returned home in the early evening. And we had a bizarre moment during the night, when some neighbour, spotting the large group of young people assembled on our front lawn (Patrick's army), got the erroneous impression that they were looters and called the police. Sierra Madre's finest arrived in force with their guns drawn and demanded that the boys lie face down on the driveway. Fortunately, I was nearby and managed to intervene before the situation became too bizarre. But the police were rightly nervous for a huge number of tourists had arrived in Sierra Madre to see the event. These inquisitive onlookers had to park south of Sierra Madre Boulevard, but came streaming up our lane on foot throughout the night, trying to get a closer look at Armageddon. I stopped many of them but they kept coming.

Eventually, imperceptively to begin with, the danger began to ebb. About 3.00am almost all the fuel in Bailey Canyon was spent and the fire had moved to the east of us where the slopes were not so steep and where the firemen had cut a number of firebreaks. We feared for a time that it would burn down into Little Santa Anita Canyon. This would have been a real catastrophe for the Little Santa Anita contains many closely packed homes that could not have been saved. But it never reached that point and, as the sun began to rise, it was clear that the danger had passed. Indeed we even managed to get a few hours of fitful sleep before our internal clocks demanded that we awake.

And so the most feared natural hazard of the mountains had come and gone. Many, many homes were lost throughout the Los Angeles basin, particularly in Altadena, Malibu and Laguna Beach. But neither lives nor homes were lost in Sierra Madre thanks to the valiant efforts of the firemen and an abundant reservoir of water. It took many days to recover from this experience; it was much more terrifying than any earthquake, flood or storm we have ever experienced.


A couple of weeks after the fire, I summoned the resolve to find out just how bad the damage was to Bailey Canyon. I hiked toward the canyon from the small wooded area next to the car park, and, as soon as I passed the monastery, I came upon the distinct edge of the fire. Almost everything on the other side of this line had been completely incinerated. It was truly like a moonscape. Only the blackened skeletons of the bigger branches of the largest bushes remained. There was not a single living thing left. And as I ascended the trail up the east wall something else became apparent. The fire had baked the ground so that the sand and soil was no longer held together by its usual, natural grime. Consequently, small sandy landslides were everywhere. This sand had accumulated in many of the larger gullies so that one could, with impunity, slide or ski down these gullies which, in normal times, would have been filled with rough rocks and tearing brush.

I continued up the trail with little hope that my glade would contain anything other than larger skeletons. But, when I rounded the corner before the trail drops into the pocket, I was delighted to find that the glade itself was almost untouched. The fire had completely burned the brush on all the surrounding slopes but had been stopped by the greener foliage of the glade. My refuge was now an oasis and I sat down to enjoy its gentleness.

I revisited the canyon several times in the weeks that followed. On one occasion I took advantage of the absent brush to climb the precipitous west ridge of the canyon to a point above the glade. I then ``skied'' down a large, sand-filled gully into the glade and returned home by the regular trail. Light rain had fallen on several occasions during these weeks and a few blades of grass had begun to appear in sheltered places where the grass seed had not been blown away. The ash was clearly a significant fertilizer. But it seemed that it would take forever for any substantial foliage to return.

It was clear that, if and when heavier rain arrived, the canyon was primed for more disaster. Any substantial volume of rain would fluidize the sand-filled gullies and major mudslides would result. But, for four months, we were spared such additional trauma. Then on Saturday, March 5, 1994, a large storm swept in from the Pacific and the rain came down in torrents. By Sunday, March 6, the rain had abated and a number of local people took their usual Sunday hike into Bailey Canyon. John Henderson, a 33-year-old Sierra Madre resident, loved both the mountains and his 9-year-old son Matthew. As they frequently did, John and Matthew hiked up the streambed of the canyon. They passed a number of other, less adventurous hikers who decided not too venture too far in case the rains returned. One of these careful hikers described what happened next as incredible. It began with a roaring, grinding sound as though an express train was coming crashing down the canyon. As the volume of sound increased the hikers all scrambled for higher ground and only just in time, for a wall of water, sand and rocks came tearing down the canyon carrying all before it and forever altering the topology of the canyon bottom. It was some time before the hikers could venture down the trail, inspecting as they went the great gash left in the canyon bottom by the passing of the flash flood. Some had already figured out what had happened. Early rains had created a large mud and rock slide in one of the larger gullies and, where this had come to rest in the bottom of the canyon, it had dammed the flow of the main stream. Behind this dam the water had built up until, at the critical moment, the natural dam had failed creating the flash flood whose awesome power the hikers had witnessed. The flood had come to rest behind the flood control dam that had been built just below the entrance to the canyon for just such an event. Those unfamiliar with the southland may be unaware that most canyons have such a catch basin or flood control dam to limit the consequences of the periodic rainstorms that roll in from the Pacific.

It looked as though Sierra Madre had been spared again for everyone seemed to be present and accounted for. After conferring with the police, who had been called to the scene, the hikers returned to the car park just below the flood control dam, and began to leave for home. Only when a few vehicles were left, did it become apparent that a small car was standing there unattended. Out of curiosity, the police ran the license number through the computer and discovered that the owner was John Henderson, a Sierra Madre resident. A telephone call to Henderson's home uncovered the ominous fact that John and his son Matthew had gone hiking in Bailey Canyon that afternoon. Further questioning of the hikers now revealed that a man and a boy had been seen hiking up into the canyon. Charles Corp, former mayor and an avid hiker for over 45 years, recalled that he had spoken with the Hendersons just moments before the wall of mud came roaring down the canyon. He told the local newspaper: ``I was going up the east side and had crossed the stream which was a teacup full of water. That was about 4.30pm Sunday afternoon. I could hear the roar like a distant jet plane. The man and his son came up and asked what the noise was and I told them that it had to be water. We were close to the stream when the roar increased. Then a 10 to 15ft stream of boiling mud, sludge, logs, boulders came down.'' Asked how close he was to the stream he laughed ruefully and replied, ``About 15ft and seconds later I was 35ft away. It was absolutely unprecedented. I never saw anything like it before.'' Another eye-witness, Rick Chartraw, who was evidently closer to the mouth of the canyon, told his story. ``At first it was like a heavy rain. Then it was just too loud for rain. I was walking my dogs and went over a temporary bridge. Then the ground started to shake and water turned the corner about 150yds away from us. It hit the banks on the east side of the wash and exploded... If you had been in the wash and started to move away, you wouldn't have made it.'' The Sierra Madre Mountain Rescue team was called in but their search of the canyon produced nothing. Darkness fell ominously and with looming tragedy in Bailey Canyon.

With the coming of dawn, the preponderance of the evidence suggested that John and Matthew had been overwhelmed by the flood and swept to their deaths in the canyon bottom. It seemed likely that their bodies were buried under the hundreds of tons of mud and rock caught in the debris basin. Other members of the family began a brutal vigil atop the dam. Foremost among this group was John's sister, Laura Henderson, who had acted as a surrogate mother for Matthew ever since his natural mother had abandoned the family when Matthew was just an infant. Personnel from the Los Angeles County Flood Control Department were called in. Every two or three years they are responsible for cleaning the accumulated sand and rock out of the debris dams. After a search of the surface of the material in the Bailey Canyon debris basin produced nothing, the authorities recognized that they would have to begin systematic excavation. And so a very grim task began, attended throughout by members of the Henderson family who viewed the work from atop the dam. Lines of trucks arrived, filing in individually to be loaded with sand, rock and mud from the basin. The drivers set up different routes for the arriving and departing trucks to minimize the chance of a traffic jam. And the trucks began to roll night and day. From our home we could hear the regular noise from the passing trucks as they drove north on Grove Street and south on Lima Street. It was a gruesome and tragic death rattle. And it went on all through the day and night.

We assumed that it would be only a day or so before the bodies would be discovered. But we underestimated the magnitude of the event. Days passed and still the trucks ground up and down the neighbourhood streets with no result. The trucks kept us awake at times but how could we complain when we thought of the tragic figures of the Hendersons sticking by their vigil on top of the dam. After four or five days, some very selfish residents did complain and the city decided that, since the matter could not be considered urgent, they would not continue the night work. Eventually, on March 15, nine days after the flash flood, the body of John Henderson was found on the southwest side of the debris basin. One hoped very much that the ordeal of the Henderson family was nearly over. But it was almost another week before the body of Matthew Henderson was found on the morning of Monday, March 21, ironically in the northwest corner, opposite where his father had been buried. Finally, the trucks were silent, Laura Henderson could climb down from the dam and some semblance of proper mourning could begin.


It was more than two weeks before I could bring myself to return to Bailey Canyon. But on April 10, a beautiful and breezy spring day, I decided that it was time for a symbolic pilgrimage and Not and I made our way to that familiar trailhead. As we walked passed the debris basin, no sign remained of the human tragedy that had taken place there only a short time before. There was an unnatural regularity to the geometry of the excavated debris basin but little else. No flowers marked the temporary graves of John and Matthew Henderson.

We hiked on, into the canyon. The bottom had been scraped clean by the passing flood and, in places, one could see that the mud flow had been about 10ft deep. Above that level, however, there was little sign of the catastrophic event. We turned east and began to follow the trail up the east wall. And there the most amazing sight revealed itself. Where there had been nothing but baked earth just a couple of months before there were now carpets of beautiful flowers on beds of the greenest grass. And the flowers were everywhere. Bright orange, yellow and white, several shades of blue and violet, they shone in the California sun and danced in the spring breeze. They brought tears to my eyes. I was certain that, if there had to be one, John and Matthew could not have wished for a more eloquent memorial. As they had done so often before, the mountains had reminded me of my own brief space. That life and death and rebirth are the natural order of things and that we should be grateful for the marvellous and terrible beauty that cycle creates.

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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen