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Neighbors’ quick action saves county landmark

Santa Ynez Valley News 25 August 2009

Raiza Canelon

Flames burn up to the historic Manzana Schoolhouse during the La Brea Fire. Quick action by neighbors saved the structure.

Faith healers built the historic Manzana Schoolhouse, but it was the determination of Los Olivos residents Felicia and John Cody and a few others who saved it when flames from the La Brea Fire threatened to destroy it.

“We have a house that is literally one-quarter mile from the schoolhouse, and I just love that building. It has so much history, and it was quite an adventure,” Cody said about putting out fires that ignited near the structure on Friday, Aug. 14.

“It was great there were people there willing to pitch in and be proactive and doing their part,” said Jim Turner of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Manzana Schoolhouse was built in 1893 by a group of faith healers, led by the curiously named Hiram Preserved Wheat, about 15 miles north of Los Olivos in the San Rafael Wilderness.

By 1902 it was closed, according to Los Padres National Forest officials, but the historic building remains a Santa Barbara County historical landmark and a historic resource listed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Codys and neighbor Fred Davis, a descendant of the original homesteaders, and friend Jaime Antunez monitored reports of the La Brea Fire, and when it started spreading up the hill toward the schoolhouse, they started efforts to protect it.

“We were really afraid when the fire burned through the last river crossing before the school, and it was a big blaze. Luckily, we were able to save it,” Antunez said.

Felicia Cody worked to put a containment line around the schoolhouse with a stick, while her husband ran to get their bulldozer and Davis threw dirt on the fire using his four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle.

Two firefighters hiked in and helped stop the fire from advancing into the schoolhouse, Cody said, but she was disappointed there weren’t more firefighters in the area.

Turner said Friday that a crew of firefighters hiked up to the area and helped stop the fire from advancing into the schoolhouse, though he couldn’t say how many were in the crew and where they hiked from.

John Cody also bulldozed a fire break around the Dabney Cabin, which was built by another settler, Charles Dabney, in 1914 near the schoolhouse, just to be sure both structures were protected.

“We made sure they weren’t going anywhere,” Felicia Cody said.

The historic schoolhouse and cabin were also threatened by the Zaca Fire in July 2007, when firefighters sprayed fire-retardant foam over them and used bulldozers to scrape “defensible space” around them.

On Saturday, the La Brea Fire was declared fully contained when firefighters completed the last section of fire line, working by hand within the San Rafael Wilderness, northeast of the historic schoolhouse.

The fire fight has cost $30.5 million to date, officials said, and no date has been given for when firefighters expect the fire to be extinguished.

By Monday morning, the number of personnel working on the fire had been reduced to about 880 from a peak of more than 2,000 as crews continued to work on extinguishing the fire, rehabilitating landscape that was disturbed by the firefighting efforts, and collecting expensive gear.

The list of equipment that must be brought home includes hoses, pump kits, generators, chainsaw kits and collapsible water tanks in addition to smaller items such as hose fittings and nozzles, a Forest Service spokesman said.

Firefighters use GPS (global positioning system) equipment to mark the location of the equipment and then crews are sent out to recover it. Then it is cleaned, repaired and organized to be ready for the next incident.

The investigation into the fire is continuing, and anyone with information that could help investigators is encouraged to call 686-5074.

Evacuated residents have since all been permitted to return to their homes, but closures remain in effect within the Los Padres National Forest near the fire.