Our Hometown Stories: Mark McMullen: Salt Of The Earth
In the early afternoon of October 21st, 2007, KHTS AM-1220 reported that there was fire in Agua Dulce near Mint Canyon and Sierra Highway. It was initially described as small.
I was relieved. We had lived through enough raging firestorms in our fair valley to last a lifetime.
However, the Santa Ana winds and dried brush did not play fair that weekend.
Small embers became frenetic flames as they were whipped by 40mph winds that would occasionally gust up to 65mph.
As the flames grew and spread like "wildfire", they became no match for organized firefighting on the ground. The command center had to be relocated five times in order to keep ahead of the onward march of what had now been named The Buckweed Fire.
By nightfall, the orange blaze was devouring the golden chaparral hills between Agua Dulce and Canyon Country. This ten-mile stretch north of the 14 Freeway became an expressway directly into Dante's Inferno.
Most of us Claritans watched the approaching fire from vantage points throughout the valley, or we got a birds-eye view from helicopters beaming images back to television stations for coverage on the evening news.
From a safe distance we witnessed the devastation unfold. For some residents, the towering flames fed by hot winds became personal.
One such resident was Mark McMullen.
Mark and his wife Peggy saw the mushrooming clouds of smoke that blanketed the Santa Clarita Valley from their seats aboard a United Airlines aircraft as it made its final descent into the Burbank Airport.
The McMullens, returning from San Francisco, were unaware that by daybreak on the 22nd of October, their home was to become a casualty of the Buckweed Fire.
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Mark McMullen loves the Santa Clarita Valley and "would never want to live anywhere else." His landscape, design and maintenance business, "McMullen Landscape" has contributed to the splendor of our Valley, one yard at a time for the last 33 years.
Mark is a third generation landscaper. He is a quiet, down to earth man who literally doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. His Hometown Story of friendship, resolve and family exemplifies what a wonderful place Santa Clarita is.
Mark's father Winston McMullen was a United States Marine during World War II. When he completed his tour of duty, his stepfather Joe introduced him to the world of gardening and landscape.
Winston, with a newfound love of horticulture, went home to Kansas and packed up his wife and nine-month old son Mark. The family settled in the San Fernando Valley where he began his thriving landscape business during the 1950's.
Mark was nine years old when he began working with his dad every summer. He was not sure if dirt and design were going to be his calling, but he did follow in his father's military footsteps and joined the United States Marine Corps. He was a machine gunner and left the Corps in 1972 with the rank of Corporal.
The childhood summers spent knee deep in weeds and manure with his dad brought back fond memories.
"I was in business school, but decided that I wanted to join my dad, so in 1976, I got my contractors license. When my younger brother Jay joined the company a few years later, it became a real family business."
At Mark's urging McMullen Landscape moved to the SCV in 1976.
Santa Clarita had a much different topography in the 1970's. Mark recalled that Valencia was not the sprawling master planned community we see today. The rows upon rows of manicured lawns and tract homes were once upon a time rows upon rows of onions. "It was very, very green back then," Mark laughed.
McMullen Landscape "took root" on a large plot of land on the corner of Placerita Canyon Road and Aden Street near Masters College where it still sits today.
The acreage was extensively planted as a growing yard.
"We cultivated and grew all of the plants that we used in our landscape design," he said.
Mark then spoke of their decision to close the growing yard in the 1980's; "The recession hit and there was no money in growing our own plants, it is easier and more cost productive to purchase than grow."
In the middle of the property, sits the McMullen Landscape storage shed. This corrugated galvanized semi-circular shed is not something you can buy from the Tuff-Shed catalog. It is an original World War II Quonset hut.
" We had to get special permission from the Santa Clarita Historical Society in order to have the Quonset hut moved to our property."
What a fabulous piece of memorabilia.
In the late 1970's Mark went out to bid a landscape job. He met the homeowner's sister Peggy. The two were married in 1979.
The McMullens purchased five acres on Lost Creek Road near Vasquez Canyon in order to build their home. Sadly, the timing wasn't in the stars and Mark and Peggy divorced 5 years later.
Mark kept the five acres and with the help of Santa Clarita homebuilder Terry Beeler, built his ranch style home.
Winston, Mark and Jay McMullen continued beautifying homes and commercial properties throughout the SCV. Winston worked in the nurseries, Mark did the designing and Jay enjoyed the maintenance.
Mark remarried and the union lasted 13 years and produced Mark's creative and talented daughter Katie. She is 22 years old and has her father's "design gene." She recently completed a two-year program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and is designing kitchens at the Home Depot in Canyon Country.
Like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, some couples are meant to be together. Mark and his first wife Peggy met up again thanks to fate and a Domino's Pizza Delivery Girl.
Mark was at a local gathering of Corvette owners in 2004, when a car bearing a Domino's sign and a backseat of pizza pies arrived. The delivery girl took a double take and said "Hi, Uncle Mark".
Mark laughed as he recalled, "I looked up and there was Peggy's niece who I had not seen in many years! She told me that Peggy was living in New York and had never remarried."
One phone call led to another and 20 years after their dissolution of marriage, Mark and Peggy were married again.
Peggy moved into the home that Mark had built on Lost Creek Road.
By this time, Winston McMullen had passed away and Jay had his own landscape company. Mark became the sole name behind the mint green trucks bearing the McMullen Landscape signage.
From his backyard patio, Mark felt pleasure and pride as his eyes would travel over their 5 landscaped acres of natural vegetation, foliage and koi ponds that were home to myriad fish and turtles.
There is a quiet serene joy that comes with living in a rural community. Gentle untouched hills meander into valleys broken up only by the asphalt ribbons of two-lane roadways.
This unspoiled land can also be a curse as the McMullens found out on the evening of October 21, 2007.
When their United Airlines flight touched down and luggage was collected, Katie picked up Mark and Peggy and headed home.
The Buckweed Fire was an official firestorm. All roads leading to Lost Creek Road were closed. The Vasquez Canyon bridge and Lombardi Ranch were burning.
The McMullens spent the night at a friend's home in Valencia.
On Sunday morning, Mark drove toward his home as far as he could and then made the approach on foot. "I knew that Peggy was waiting for my call. She was anxious to hear how our house made out and was worried about our two indoor cats, Martini and Zora.
Mark summoned up his memories of that walk down Lost Creek Road. "Brush and trees were blackened, but it looked like all of the homes were intact. I thought I was good."
"My neighbor Mike Fowler approached on his ATV. He looked at me and said, ‘I am sorry Mark, we couldn't save your house.'"
"I could not believe it."
A rogue ember, which may have looked like a firefly as it floated above the canyon, made its way into their attic sometime after midnight on October 22, 2007. The house burned to the foundation.
Mark dreaded the phone call to Peggy that he knew he had to make.
"She thought I was kidding, then her voice turned incredulous as she said ‘Our house is gone...you mean there is nothing left?'"
Mark is so very grateful for the good friends that he and Peggy have in Santa Clarita. "They rallied around us and helped out in anyway they could," he said.
Mark called his insurance company and immediately got temporary power poles set up on the property to keep their koi ponds and underground well going.
In an ironic twist, the landscape surrounding the house survived unscathed. It is an eerie picture.
The McMullens began the process of rebuilding almost immediately. Terry Beeler was once again called upon to lend his expertise and beautiful craftsmanship to the design and construction of the McMullen's home.
"This time," Mark said, "Peggy and I designed the home together. The original footprint of the house was used, but we were able to update the interior and exterior and make it our dream home."
Mark was now his own client, as he put his hands into the earth and revamped the family's outdoor living spaces to compliment the updated residence.
Terry Beeler along with his son David turned the keys over to Mark and Peggy in August 2008.
Photographs of the completed home show it painted in the same soft green as the McMullen Landscaping trucks. Coincidence? I think not.
Saddened by the deaths of their family cats, Martini and Zora, the McMullens have tried to keep the attitude that all the rest was just "stuff that can be replaced."
Some memories can be conjured up at will, some memories fade. There are pieces of your history that are tangible, physical mementos and one of a kind treasures that when lost cannot be restored. Mark felt the loss of these the most.
- His family albums filled with generational photographs,
- Thousands of his record albums,
- Katie's schoolwork evolving from childish scrawls to her intricate design sketches,
- His beautiful Corvette Convertible, and
- The American Flag from his father's coffin.
On the morning that Mark McMullen walked around surveying the devastation that was his home; there sitting like a yellow beacon, untouched by the flames, was his 1958 fully restored and rebuilt Ford Tractor.
Mark smiled and said "God left this here so I could clean up."
Clean up he did.
Two years later, the Buckweed Fire is a memory. Lombardi Ranch is open for business, the bridge on Vasquez Canyon is almost completed and Mark McMullen is continuing to bring green grandeur to the Santa Clarita Valley.
Good things come to those who wait.