Inside Seven
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From right to left, Lead Worker Dale Hale, Supervisor Don Niles, Heavy Equipment Operator Robert Torres, and two road crewmembers from the Altadena Maintenance Yard.  *Heavy Equipment Operator Kevin Leach was not present.

The Yard on a Mountain
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 08/2009

The Chilao maintenance yard provides tough living but satisfying results.

Located on a wooded mountainside in the Angeles National Forest (ANF), along the Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2) is the Chilao Maintenance Yard, the last live-in yard in District 7.

Situated on six and half acres are four houses, a maintenance and storage bay, a fuel cottage, two warehouses, and storage units for the families living at the facility, making it quite a comfortable outpost. Several new buildings including office space and a parking bay were added in 2004.

Opened during the 1940’s, it has been home to several Caltrans employees and their families.

Fires, heavy snow, blocked roads, motorcycle crashes, criminal activity, and strange religious practices are part of what these workers have seen in their years living at the Chilao yard.

Currently, the Chilao maintenance yard is home to four maintenance workers and their families. Supervisor Don Niles, along with Equipment Operators Robert Torres and Kevin Leach, and Lead Worker Dale Haun all live in the yard’s residences.

Dale Haun and his wife have lived at the yard for 25 years. He is well aware of the benefits and drawbacks of living at such a location.

“I love it. If you need anything it’s an hour down the hill and an hour back. You have to plan to get your groceries and make a list because you’re not going back for just one item,” said Haun. “I was raised on a farm and it’s basically the same thing; we’d go to town once a week to get what we need. You can hunt and fish. It’s great,” he said.

Niles, who has lived at the yard for over seven years with two teenage sons, concurred with Haun, “The only hardship is groceries or taking your kids to school. It’s basically 50 miles to get a loaf of bread.”

Working on the mountain presents a tough challenge for the Chilao crewmembers.

While clearing snow off SR-2, Haun got stuck when his snow remover shut down. “I hotwired it and got it going. If I had not have done that I could have been stuck out there by myself for hours,” he said.

In some cases, when SR-2 is shut down due to poor road conditions and weather, ambitious motorists have driven past roadblocks only to be turned around by a large Caltrans truck. “If a motorist tries get by, we will radio up the hill to let other heavy equipment operators know that a car is headed their way,” said Robert Torres. “By working together we improve our safety and lower the risk of accidents due to uninformed and disobedient drivers.”

Niles, who doubles as one of the district’s demolition experts, uses explosives to remove large boulders and clear sheeting rocks that may fall onto the road. Niles works with one of the district’s geologists to determine which rocks need to be removed. “Rock climbers will climb down to the rocks that need to be removed, drill holes, and place the explosives for demolition,” said Niles. “When large boulders fall on the road, it is our job to make big rocks into little rocks to make them easier to remove. If you have ever driven on SR-2 you may notice how clear it is. The workers at the Chilao are the reasons why. It’s our driveway.”

“To work at the Chilao yard, one must to be a senior worker who has met all of the requirements. Lack of experience could cause safety problems,” said Torres, who has lived at the yard with his wife and three young children for seven years.

During Torres’ tenure at Chilao, he was deployed to Kuwait in 2007. Torres is a Sergeant First Class in the Army Reserves Signal Corps and is a 24-year veteran of the Army and National Guard. Additionally, when Torres has free time, he works as a paid call firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The residents at Chilao are not alone. Some of the local visitors have become quite a nuisance.

“About a month ago, at about 4:30 a.m. I heard a big bang on my window. When I got up, there was a bear trying to climb in to my house,” said Niles. On other occasions the bears have torn the screen doors off some of the homes and have broken into cars and chewed up the seats.

“Once the bears get in and they smell food they will keep coming back,” said Haun. “A couple of bears broke into the nearby forest ranger’s house and tore it to pieces.”

Besides close encounters with bears, mountain lions, strange characters, and the isolation, workers at this yard serve as an integral asset for Caltrans, tourism, and public safety.

To see additional photos, click here.

1950's shot of the Chilao Maintenance Yard Bird's eye view shows the isolation of the yard. Strategically located to improve safety and maintain SR-2, the workers at Chilao are never too far from work or home. The new equipment and storage bay built in 2004.