A Day That Changed Glendora: Retrospective On The Colby Fire’s Impact One Year Later

Courtesy of Marc Pijuan

A lot has happened since that morning of January 16, 2014. The hillsides charred by a careless fire continue to slowly heal and those who lost their homes and belongings are still haunted by tragedy as a city moves forward.

Following is a narrative recount of the events of that morning through information already known, new interviews with police officers, city officials and those trudging along after losing everything. Attempts were made to speak with all victims who lost their possessions. Only a few were located and granted interviews.

The Emergency Response
5:40 a.m. That’s when the first 911 call was made.

Just three days prior, the United States Forest Service closed Glendora Mountain Road to the public after a Red Flag Warning had been issued due to the high fire danger. Both the closure and Red Flag Warning were extended until Jan. 17, before the fire even came.

Courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

Courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

As Los Angeles County fire fighters, the US Forest Service, police officers and Sheriff’s deputies sped northbound with sirens blazing, they were greeted by the flickering glow of a small fire which punctured the blackness of the hillsides northeast of the 1000 block of Englewild Drive.

As winds almost perpetually whipped the mountains, it quickly became apparent that the fire would move fast and expand rapidly.

After the blaze broke out, fire fighters dispatched their three available water dropping helicopters before sunrise, since they are equipped with night vision, and quickly upgraded their response to a 2nd-alarm. Fire fighters ordered resources in an “extremely urgent mode” to get as many units to Glendora as possible.

The fire grew slowly at first, for it burned in a canyon protected from the winds. However, the fire eventually reached the winds and was propelled westward. In about three hours, the fire grew to 125 acres.

Authorities soon after set up the Emergency Operations Center in the Glendora Public Library’s Bidwell Forum.

“I was traveling westbound on Foothill towards City Hall. I looked up into the foothills and it was very scary,” recalled Glendora Council member Joe Santoro. “It looked like the whole bottom of the foothills was on fire.”

As fate would have it, Los Angeles County’s lease with the Canadian-operated Super Scoopers was set to expire two days before the Colby Fire ignited, but it was automatically renewed with the Red Flag Warning. With no other “competing events” happening at the time, the County had the staffing available to accommodate the fire fight above Glendora.

About 800 firefighters, 8 fire-fighting helicopters and two Super Scoopers descended on the city during the course of the blaze.

Meanwhile, three young men who literally threw caution to the wind were fleeing the hillside from the fire they ignited.

Photo courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

Photo courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

The Suspects

On January 15, Jonathan Jarrell, Clifford Henry, Jr. and Steven Aguirre all met up in Glendora earlier in the day. They decided they would go camping in the foothills above the city. The trio left the Colby Trail head around 8:30 p.m. and traversed the parched foothills northbound, according to the affidavit provided by prosecutors.

The men found a place to rest around 10:30 p.m.

From Twitter user Lauraa_gloverr

From Twitter user Lauraa_gloverr

It was particularly cold, so the friends collected rocks and built a small ring in which they started a warming fire in the Angeles National Forest. That campfire was eventually extinguished with dirt and the trio fell asleep.

After waking to cold winds sometime after 4 a.m., Henry, Jr. and Aguirre built a second fire from twigs and crumpled paper from Jarrell’s notebook.

“You might as well throw the whole thing in there,” Henry, Jr. sarcastically told Jarrell.

Jarrell then threw his entire notebook into the fire. A gust of wind sent burning paper into the dry brush nearby, igniting it. The trio claimed to have made an attempt to extinguish the brush fire by stomping on it. After a fruitless endeavor, they fled.

A resident spotted two of the fire starters fleeing down a flood control channel and flagged down Corporal Nancy Miranda who was stationed in the area of Kregmont Drive and Saga Street during the initial response.

Miranda located Henry, Jr. and Aguirre in the flood control channel near the 800 block of East Palm Drive south of the Englewild Debris basin around 6:45 a.m.

Courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

Courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

“I kind of lured them out, telling them I was going to give them some help,” Miranda said last year. She immediately suspected their involvement in the fire.

The two men were panting from running, appeared disheveled, their clothes reeked of smoke and their shoes caked with mud. Miranda asked the two suspects point blank if they had started the fire.

The men continually denied their involvement, claiming they woke to find the hills already burning and fled in fear. When pressed about why they were in the flood control channel, the men exhibited guilt.

Both were eventually arrested, Henry, Jr. on suspicion of igniting the Colby Fire. Aguirre was arrested on suspicion of possessing a stolen credit card, which officer’s learned belonged to Jarrell.

Around 7:30 a.m., a US Forest Service fire prevention technician saw Jarrell along Colby Trail where it intersects with Glendora Mountain Road. The technician offered him a ride down, secretly suspecting his involvement in the fire.

Jarrell was arrested soon after.

Glendora Police, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and federal investigators interrogated the trio at the Glendora city jail. Henry, Jr. continued to deny his involvement in starting the Colby Fire. He then said it could have ignited due to his marijuana smoking.

As the day progressed, Aguirre and Henry, Jr. finally decided to come clean about their involvement in the fire, with the latter of the two stating he “was not going to cover for anyone anymore.”

Investigators eventually obtained remorseful confessions from the suspects. The trio acknowledged the dangerously dry conditions and that it was unwise to build a campfire but did it anyway.

Image courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

Image courtesy of the Glendora Police Department

Investigators led a chained Clifford Henry, Jr. back up the scorched hillside to locate the area where the fire started, eventually taking them to the small fire ring where the trio attempted to stay warm.

As investigators continued to piece together the events of that morning, around 1,000 residents in the foothills were frantically trying to escape with their lives.

The Evacuations
Glendora officers responded to 475 calls regarding the fire in a four-hour period.

The 40-to-60-mile-per-hour gusts in the mountains carried embers far west of the Colby Fire, igniting multiple new fires at least a half mile ahead of the main fire along the San Gabriel Mountains and towards Azusa.

Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

A tremendous mutual aid response was initiated. At least 46 fire and police departments from as far north as Santa Barbara to as far south as San Diego responded to help evacuate residents and fight the flames.

Some residents high in the mountain communities attempted to prevent the fire from harming their properties by spraying down areas with garden hoses. Some residents were still wearing business suits having dressed for work.

The Colby Fire erupted just after the morning shift change for Glendora Police. While fire fighters from around the area were already in the middle of attacking the flames, officers and Sheriff’s deputies suited up and ran towards the foothills, snaking up and down the winding and narrow roads high on the hillsides, telling people to evacuate.

Motor officer Jake Swann and other officers travelled into neighborhoods and on driveways so steep that Swann nearly had to ditch his motorcycle after temporarily losing traction.

Rare Footage of the Colby Fire

Motor officer Danny Antillon was driving into work on the Interstate 210 freeway at San Dimas Avenue and observed the fire right after it started. He immediately feared the winds would push the fire towards homes.

After daylight broke, Antillon met briefly with fellow officers and detectives near the 1100 block of North Easley Canyon Road and determined that the residents on Glendora Avenue north of Sierra Madre Avenue were the most vulnerable.

“Because of the topography of the city and where residents are located on Glendora Avenue, I knew that area was going to be the most difficult to get people out of. So many houses packed into one area,” Antillion said in a phone interview.

Antillion was right. Five of the six homes that were destroyed were on Glendora Avenue.

Some residents were completely unaware a fire was raging, Antillion recalled.

Husband and wife Andy and Slawka Janiec slumbered in their home in the 1100 block of North Glendora Avenue. They were awaken by the rumble of fire fighting helicopters.

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

The Janiecs furiously worked to notify neighbors of the fire by calling homes and knocking on doors as the fire moved west.

Fire fighters arrived to the Janiec’s neighborhood and told them that they had to evacuate immediately. By 7:15 p.m., the Janiecs left their home for the last time.

Antillon recalls one particular resident on Hicrest Road who refused to flee her home. The woman’s family knew the fire was approaching, but needed much help in convincing the woman to leave.

Antillon happened to arrive while notifying residents and after informing the woman of the homes already lost and where the fire was headed, the woman was finally coaxed out, Antillon said.

There were 11 men renting rooms adjacent to the Singer Mansion, 1150 N. Kregmont Dr.

In a previous interview, former mansion occupant Rudy Rosas recalled being awoken by a fellow resident. Rosas witnessed a red glow on the mountains to the east as the fire grew and recalled feeling the heat coming from the flames.

Photo courtesy of Marc Pijuan

Photo courtesy of Marc Pijuan

Soon, firemen arrived to the mansion around 5:45 a.m. and told the men they may have to evacuate. Heeding that news, the men grabbed what they could.

The fire quickly approached the Singer Mansion. As the occupants started fleeing down the winding mansion driveway, fire fighters were bringing up hoses to fight the flames that were already licking the hillsides mere feet from the mansion.

The Destruction
Water-dropping helicopters and Super Scoopers scrambled back and forth from area reservoirs, sucking water and dousing flames in a careful dance above the fire.

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby had all available resources committed to the Colby Fire incident.

The Singer Mansion was one of the first properties fire fighters arrived to, said Deputy Chief John Tripp of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Lacking fire hydrants in the steeper hillside neighborhoods, fire fighters relied on their 500-gallon tanker trucks to provide the resources to save homes.

The mansion itself was saved. The living quarters adjacent to the mansion where the 11 men lived with their few possessions were completely destroyed.

Smoke from the Colby Fire crept like molasses across the Southern California sky as far as Catalina Island.

Council member Joe Santoro, who was already serving as mayor during the Colby Fire, arrived to the Emergency Operations Center that morning. Fire fighters there told him they believed that up to 200 homes could be lost in the fire, Santoro said.

In the community down below, anxious residents stood by, waiting, hoping for good news about their homes. News slowly spread to the victims that their homes were gone.

Around 9:47 a.m., a television news crew showed Andy and Slawka Janiec a photo of the charred remnants of their home. Fire fighters later confirmed the bad news.

By 10 a.m., three homes were destroyed and 1,700 acres were already scorched. The strongest winds were still expected to arrive by the afternoon.

As mandatory evacuations were initiated and residents were prevented from entering streets closed to the fire, 159 law enforcement officers continuously patrolled the evacuated neighborhoods, ensuring homes and property were protected.

It wasn’t until almost 9 p.m. that same day that mandatory evacuations in Glendora were lifted.

In all, six homes were destroyed, 17 other structures burned, nine other homes were damaged and six people, including five fire fighters, were injured. No lives were lost.

The fire cost $3 million in property damage. The fire scorched 1,952 acres.

The Victims
For many who lost their homes and property, the Colby Fire left scars that have yet to heal a year after the blaze.

For former Glendora resident George Peterson, losing everything in the fire devastated him and his wife, Linda.

“It’s just too difficult to deal with. Almost $1 million in antiques that could never be replaced. Personal memorabilia that was irreplaceable. [We’re] trying to start a new life,” Peterson said in an email interview. Peterson and his wife are now living in Oregon.

Peterson does occasionally commute every couple of months to his businesses in Covina, The Sugar Bowl and Giovanni’s International Restaurant.

Peterson has spent the last year dealing with insurance adjusters and with licensing and planning personnel to eventually rebuild and sell the new house.

Stanley Salce, former resident of the Singer Mansion, was able to find fortune after the fire. He moved around Glendora and Oceanside for a bit before settling in Fullerton to live with his soon-to-be-wife. The two met at a Glendora High School reunion in October of 2014.

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

Photo by Aaron Castrejon

Salce, a veteran of the 82nd Aiborne during the Reagan Era, still seeks help at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System to battle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. He is returning the help he receives by volunteering at the Long Beach VA three to four days a week.

Salce also continues to work in Hollywood as an extra for television, having recently performed as a background actor in “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds.”

For Salce, his faith and the people around him are some of his strongest lifelines.

“It’s just staying connected and being positive,” Salce said.

Alex Larson, another former Singer Mansion resident, has not done so well, Salce said.

Larson, 51, has been struggling since the Colby Fire, which devastated his life. The living quarters at the Singer Mansion provided some of the first stable housing he has had in many years. He is seeking help and taking part in a sober living program.

Image courtesy of gofundme.com

Image courtesy of gofundme.com

The Palo family, which lost its home in the 300 block of North Conifer Road, also dreams of rebuilding.

Gena Palo, teacher at Sandburgh Middle School, said the family could not have imagined going through everything the fire did to them alone.

Through the help of a friend, a donation drive was set up online after the Colby Fire with the goal of raising $3,000 to help the Palo’s survive: More than $25,000 was raised from the community.

“We have been so blessed with the support of our family, friends and the community. I told my kids that we can never forget the generosity we have received and we need to make sure we return that kindness,” Palo said. The Palo family is renting in the Rosedale community in Azusa.

Photo courtesy of Andy Janiec

Photo courtesy of Andy Janiec

Things have not been so great for Andy and wife Slawka Janiec, who are still living in an RV donated by Gene Morrill, owner of Certified Automotive, last year.

The Janiecs have been fighting tooth and claw to rebuild their home and have reportedly hit obstacle after obstacle laid in front of them by their insurance company, Bank of America and other organizations, even the city.

“The city was a waste of time and money,” Andy said, believing the city generates good PR for itself while doing little to help the residents whose homes burned. “Glendora wanted $160,000 in permits alone.”

Andy also believes the city failed its residents by not having a plan for a disaster of this nature before it occurred. He hopes that after Glendora officials have let him down, perhaps a new city council will bring about changes.

The insurance company has also left the Janiec’s jaded. The husband and wife had $2.2 million in insurance paid on their home of which they only received $450,000 from Bank of America.

Despite the setbacks, the Janiec’s will continue to fight for what is theirs.

Justice Delayed
In the days that followed, federal prosecutors decided to charge the three men with two felony counts and four misdemeanor counts related to the fire. All three suspects eventually pleaded not guilty in court.

All three men were convicted in starting the Colby Fire on various felony and misdemeanor charges in May.

Many had hoped that the fire starters would receive adequate convictions. The low recommendation for sentencing was between 60 to 66 months in federal prison.

In August, however, Aguirre received a four-month prison sentence. Henry, Jr. received a six-month prison sentence, both with three years of supervised release.

Jarrell is scheduled to be sentenced in June of this year after undergoing a mental health and drug rehabilitation program.

Andy Janiec was present at one of the court hearings for the fire starters and addressed the three men.

“I said ‘your problems are over. You go to jail. You have access to TV, you have a hot shower, we don’t. Our problems are starting,” Andy said.

All three were ordered in December to pay $9.16 million in restitution to various responding agencies, insurance companies and to individual victims. The city of Glendora alone calculated that $654,776 was spent in response to the fire and subsequent floods.

However, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu was convinced by a federal probation officer that the floods could not be proven as a result of the fires. Glendora would be granted just over $48,000 of the amount it sought, said Jamie Caldwell, Glendora’s Emergency Services Manager, in an earlier interview.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns agrees that while it is his job to seek proper restitution from the suspects, it is anybody’s guess if and when they will pay it back.

During sentencing, Wu likened the ignition of the Colby Fire to a drunk driver whose careless actions have unintended consequences, according to an article in the Los Angeles Register.

“To me it almost appeared that the judge had more concern for the suspects than he did for the victims,” Caldwell said. “What kind of a message does that send.”

From Fire’s To Floods
With fires come floods and Glendora had the unfortunate opportunity to experience that firsthand in 1969 after a destructive fire in ’68 paved the way for deadly mudslides.

“From the day that fire was over, our city and county partners put together a plan for the mudslides and flooding that would take place,” said Glendora Council member Joe Santoro.

Image by Aaron Castrejon

Image by Aaron Castrejon

Seeking to avoid the errors of the past, city departments birthed a plan with Federal, state and county agencies to assess the fire’s destruction and form a hillside recovery plan to identify neighborhoods most vulnerable to mudslides and debris flows.

A hefty portion of that plan involved the anchoring of nearly two miles of cement k-rail, planting timber barricades to protect homes and the placement of tens of thousands of sandbags.

City authorities also deployed reverse 911 calls and a social media campaign to inform residents when a threat was on the horizon.

Santoro still marvels at the massive coordinated effort that city, county and federal agencies undertook during and after the Colby Fire.

Image by Aaron Castrejon

Image by Aaron Castrejon

“It doesn’t happen easy. It happened because of a good … emergency response plan,” Santoro said. “As a [former] police chief, I have been in a number of emergency operation centers. It was one of the finest days, seeing our city and mutual aid partners working together.”

Santoro also greatly admires the residents of Glendora for heeding the warnings from emergency personnel during the threat of mudslides and how residents pitched in to help one another during flood preparation.

In the months since the hillside recovery and emergency preparedness plans were enacted, Glendora has bore the brunt of several intense winter storms that have not caused nearly as much destruction as the floods of 1969 did.

An intense-two day winter storm struck in late February and early March of 2014, the first to strike after the fires, dumped mud and rain into Glendora foothill streets and backyards.

A surprise thunderstorm struck Glendora early on Nov. 21, dumping nearly 1 inch of rain in a one-hour period, causing a four-foot wall of mud to damage the garage of a home on Easley Canyon Road.

An early December storm dumped about 1.58 inches of rain, while a storm that followed two weeks later poured 1.28 inches of rain on the foothills, causing silty runoff to flood foothill streets.

The hillside communities will likely live under the potential for deadly mudslides for the next four years during the time it will take for the landscape to heal.

Zak Bushey contributed to this story.

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