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'It Was His Passion' -- The Rustic Cabin Destroyed By The Bobcat Fire

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The Bobcat Fire that burned over the San Gabriel Mountains in September destroyed 17 primitive cabins in the Angeles National Forest above Arcadia, consuming some vacation homes that had been held in the same families for generations.

The cabins in Big Santa Anita Canyon were in many cases over a hundred years old, artifacts from Southern California's great hiking era of the early 1900s.

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One of those burned cabins belongs to the Apodaca family. Patriarch Daniel Eliseo Apodaca bought the place in 1969 from a friend. For the next 50 years, it was the center of family life, site of birthday parties, kids' sleepovers and holiday celebrations.

I visited the remains of the cabin with his two daughters recently, during one of the first opportunities for journalists to head down the canyon and see the aftermath of the fire.

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A sign posted near Chantry Flat with distances along the Gabrielino National Recreational Trail. The sign lost one of its legs to the Bobcat Fire in September 2020. (Sharon McNary/LAist.com)

SHOW AND TELL

The trail down the canyon is so steep that vehicles aren't permitted. Hiking is the only way in. The first half-mile of fire road is paved and beyond that it's dirt road, and a narrow bridge. That's why pack mules and donkeys are hired from the Adams Pack Station up near the Chantry Flat picnic grounds to carry anything heavy down into the canyon.

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It's a trek the two women made many times in their childhood.

"There's little spots that have deep memories for me and for my siblings," Ria Apodaca said, as her younger sister Gina Fenard hiked alongside.

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Ria Apodaca, left, along a paved section of the burned-over Gabrielino Trail, with her sister Gina Fenard and Gina's children Eva, 12, and Hugo, 8, and husband, David Fenard. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

"This cabin is such a big part of our dad's (life.) It was definitely his passion," Fenard said.

Their father grew up in Boyle Heights, served in the Army, and became an accountant after college. He loved jazz and mariachi. Fenard says he filled the cabin with family, friends, mementos and live music.

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Ria Apodaca holds a photo of her father, Daniel Apodaca, when he was younger. He died Aug. 31, 2020 at age 85, a week before the Bobcat Fire broke out. (Courtesy Ria Apodaca)

"Our dad was Mr. Show and Tell and would always be like, 'oh, come on in. This is the piano. This is my collection of old cowboy photos'," Fenard said.

She said he loved filling the cabin and patio with oversized, impractical curios, like two giant mining barrels that hikers sometimes mistook for trash cans. But he outdid himself with the full-size upright piano.

HOW'D THAT PIANO GET DOWN THE CANYON?

Daniel Apodaca recruited six men who used two dollies and some sheets of plywood to roll the piano more than a mile down a rough dirt trail.

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"They rolled it on the dolly and then the other part of the crew would go to the front of that dolly, slide the piano and that dolly, slide it down a little more and then pivot the other dolly in front for a mile," Fenard said.

They spent as much effort braking the roll of the dollies downhill to keep the piano from running away from them as moving it, she said.

Her father didn't even play the piano -- he'd just invite random hikers passing by to come in and play. He often said he wanted to post a sign outside the cabin inviting piano players to perform.

REMAINS OF THE FAMILY CABIN

After a 1.5-mile trek, we go over a narrow bridge and around a bend, and the remains of the cabin come into view. Only the stone walls, fireplace and chimney still stand.

The sisters have already visited a few times. With friends, they cleared away most of the ash and piled hazardous metal the fire didn't burn into one corner.

"This is what's left of the piano," Apodaca said, pointing to a hunk of cast iron and a tangle of metal wires.

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Ria Apodaca with a cast iron piano plate, all that remains of a piano her father Daniel Apodaca hauled into Big Santa Anita Canyon to his cabin, which burned in the Bobcat Fire. (Sharon McNary/LAist.com)

Their elderly father visited the cabin on aging, shaky legs three years ago. The steep climb out would be his last. He was 85 when he died on August 31, one week before the Bobcat Fire started.

"This year has brought us a lot of a lot of grief and a lot of sadness," Apodaca said. "A lot of things that have happened that are out of our control, but coming down here and shoveling ash is actually, for me, part of a healing process."

They intend to rebuild, but whether they can is an open question.

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The Apodaca cabin in Big Santa Anita Canyon before the September 2018 Bobcat Fire. (Courtesy David Nikoloff)

ARTIFACTS OF A GONE ERA -- CAN THEY REBUILD?

By the 1930's there were hundreds of cabins in the canyon, but floods and fires over the years reduced their numbers. Before this year's Bobcat Fire there were just 81 cabins. Now there are only 64. The owners of the 17 burned cabins are waiting to learn if the rustic vacation homes can ever be rebuilt.

It's a big question because the cabins are privately-owned but located on public land, allowed as vacation homes under recreational residence permits meant to preserve historic structures -- but not necessarily to allow new cabins.

Big Santa Anita Canyon Permitees Association President Ben Fitzsimmons says the local management of the Forest Service has sounded supportive of the 17 burned cabins being rebuilt, in the same historic style as before, but that prospect is "extremely uncertain."

"A lot of it is up to the Forest Service, it depends on the safety of the environment, the fire, various other factors," Fitzsimmons said. "And then we have the logistical challenges of rebuilding. Not every cabin owner is able to rebuild. It's a major undertaking to pack everything in."

The Forest Service says it will make a cabin-by-cabin decision, based on flood risk and other potential hazards, applying safety and other land use standards that did not exist a century ago when many of them were built.

"We must determine that it's safe to rebuild," said Justin Seastrand, a supervisory natural resource specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, whose portfolio includes the cabins.

He said any cabins to be rebuilt would have to be outside the boundaries of a 100-year flood plain for the canyon, free of geologic risks, and accessible to emergency and official vehicles.

That will be a tall order for some of the burned cabins that are on the other side of a hikers' footbridge, or close to the creek that runs down the canyon, or below slopes that burned and could be inundated by mud and debris in a heavy rain.

The Forest Service denied the rebuilding applications of about a dozen similar cabins in the Cleveland National Forest that had burned in the 2018 Holy Jim Fire, Seastrand said.

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Ria Apodaca and her sister Gina Fenard inside the remains of their family cabin that burned in the Bobcat Fire. The cabin is in Big Santa Anita Canyon. (Sharon McNary/LAist.com)

Still, the family wants to pursue an application to return the Apodaca cabin to its former state.

"We're coming together with a spirit to be able to rebuild something," Ria Apodaca said. "And this year hasn't provided us with many opportunities to do that."

For now, Ria says they will use the remains of the piano for some kind of an art piece dedicated to their father and their shared memories.