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Firestorms tear into Southern California

SCV temporarily threatened

Posted: November 15, 2008 12:55 a.m.
Updated: November 16, 2008 6:55 p.m.

A firefighter from San Gorgonio battles the Sayre Fire as it enters the Newhall Pass Saturday.

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UPDATED 5:25 p.m. Sunday:
Here's the latest from The Associated Press.

All Santa Clarita Valley freeways are open.

Click here for an L.A. County Fire Department map of the Sayre Fire area as of 6:55 p.m. Sunday.

UPDATED 11:00 p.m. Saturday:
Highway 126 is closed from Interstate 5 north to San Fernando Road. Interstate 5 is open through the Newhall Pass.

The L.A. County Fire Department reports the wind-driven Sayre wildfire has burned approximately 8,000 acres. The number of structures lost is still being counted.

UPDATED 10:25 p.m. Saturday:
Fueled by fierce, shifting winds and dry brush, the Sayre Fire scorched more than 8,000 acres in Sylmar and the Newhall Pass Saturday, claiming at least 500 Sylmar mobile homes, injuring 20, shutting down major highways and trapping thousands.

Flames licked at the mountains separating the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys most of the day, sending plumes of black, brown and orange smoke above the horizon.

By about 9 p.m. the fire had advanced into the Santa Clarita Valley through the Newhall Pass, forcing closures of Highway 14 and clogging streets with traffic.

Southbound traffic was halted on Highway 14 in Newhall and routed from Interstate 5 onto Highway 126 for most of the day. No northbound traffic was allowed through Newhall Pass.

The freeways were reopened late Saturday afternoon.

Occasionally the Sayre Fire, which began in Sylmar Friday night, advanced down the slopes of Bear Divide and the Santa Susana Mountains, but damage was confined to the San Fernando Valley.

"Right now it's coming to the top of the mountains but as long as winds stay steady, they'll keep it on the LAPD side," Lt. Mark Hershey of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station said Saturday morning.

The station set up an incident command center at a College of the Canyons parking lot Saturday morning as California Highway Patrol officers closed the Newhall Pass.

About 30 additional deputies patrolled Santa Clarita surface streets to help regulate traffic flow because of freeway-closure traffic, Sheriff's Lt. Steve Low said.

Aldan Rvic was one of the many travelers trapped in Santa Clarita. He works in Santa Clarita and was on his way home to Tujunga when he discovered he could not get on the freeway.

He said he would stay at In-N-Out Burger in Stevenson Ranch until the highways re-opened.

The direction of the flames was unpredictable at times.

"This is a classic backing fire against the wind," said an official from the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority as he stood on the northbound Highway 14 truck route watching firefighters battle the blaze in the pass.

"This is an unusual fire. Fires like to go uphill and this is going downhill - and that's an indication of how dry the brush is."

Six Flags Magic Mountain closed at noon Saturday, park spokeswoman Sue Carpenter said. The park was scheduled to be open today but would close if fire conditions worsened, she said.

College of the Canyon officials canceled about 20 percent of their classes on the Valencia and Canyon Country campuses because instructors couldn't get to campus through the Newhall Pass. College officials shut down the Canyon Country campus for the day at 2 p.m., spokeswoman Sue Bozman said.

The COC football game at Bakersfield was postponed two hours due to traffic delays, and the women's basketball game scheduled against Long Beach was cancelled.

The student orchestra concert scheduled for the college's performing arts center Saturday night was canceled and will be rescheduled, Bozman said.

Metropolitan Los Angeles was seemingly surrounded by flames Saturday, with three wildfires consuming mansions and mobile homes at the edges, where bone-dry wilderness meets burgeoning development.

The destruction was near total in other areas: Some 500 mobile homes in Sylmar were transformed into a smoking wasteland.

"I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said at Oakridge Mobile Home Park.

Tens of thousands of residents evacuated their homes in the San Fernando Valley, Santa Barbara County and along the Orange-Riverside county line. For millions of others, major freeways were shut down and the prospect of blackouts hung in the air like the smoke.

No deaths were reported, but the Los Angeles police chief said he feared authorities might find bodies in the devastated mobile home park, which housed many senior citizens. Crews were waiting for the ground to cool before bringing in search dogs.

The series of fires have injured at least 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes from coastal Santa Barbara to inland Riverside County, on the other side of the heavily-populated Los Angeles area.

The Sayre Fire grew to more than 12 square miles and was only 20 percent contained Saturday night. It sent residents fleeing in the dark Saturday morning as it torched cars, bone-dry brush and much of the mobile home park.

The blaze, the cause of which was under investigation, threatened at least 1,000 structures, city Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said. A burned resident was in serious condition and four firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles. Fire officials estimated 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate.

Despite being asked to evacuate at 11 p.m. Friday night, Cindy Elwood, a resident of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, waited until 2 a.m. Saturday to evacuate.

As she hurried to her car, she said wind-driven embers hit her, burning her leg. Once she saw how close the fire was, she knew "nothing could be saved." Elwood said she would like to eventually rebuild, if possible.

Lucretia Romero said she saw smoke above the hills beyond the front door and then, within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame.

"They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back," she said. At an evacuation center, Romero, 65, wore a string of pearls and clutched the purse and jacket she managed to take.

Her daughter, Lisa, 42, wore a bloodstained shirt and pants. A helicopter dropping water on their home caused the entryway ceiling to collapse. Debris scratched her forehead and gave her a black eye.

They were optimistic that their home of 30 years survived because firefighters were there when they left.

The wind carried the fire across the mobile home park so fast that firefighters had to flee, grabbing some residents and leaving hoses melted into the concrete.

Ruda produced a burned U.S. flag on a broken stick as a sign of hope and bravery for firefighters.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said cars were found in the debris at the park, raising concerns that bodies might be found.

The Santa Anas - dry winds that blow through Southern California between October and February - tossed embers ahead of flames, jumping two interstates and sparking new flare-ups. Walls of flame raced up ridge lines covered in sun-baked brush and surrounded high-power transmission line towers.

The National Weather Service forecast a high of about 86 degrees today, with winds of about 17 mph, and possible gusts up to 24 mph. A Red Flag fire warning has been extended through 4 p.m. for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


UPDATED 9:11 p.m. Saturday
The onramp from southbound Interstate 5 to northbound state Highway 14 was closed as of 9 p.m. Saturday from Balboa Boulevard to the Sierra Highway.

Flames slowly spread north of the mountains in the direction of Via Princessa as of 9 p.m. Saturday.

Firefighters had the Sayre Fire 20 percent contained as of 9:11 p.m. Saturday.

At about 5 p.m., part of the Sayre Fire crept through Bear Divide above the Plaza at Golden Valley near the recently opened Kohl’s retail store and Lowe’s home building store.

n At 4:45 p.m., Traffic on Interstate 5 was moving slowly as heavy smoke loomed over the freeway causing low visibility. Flying embers sparked several spot fires. L.A. County Fire Department personnel extinguished hillside spot fires. Highway 14 freeway is now open in both directions.

n At 4 p.m., 19 mph southwest winds were blowing in the Newhall Pass. The temperature was 79 degrees in Santa Clarita and the humidity was 6 percent. The National Weather Service forecasts 67 degrees tonight with northeast winds between 17 and 22 mph with gusts as high as 31 mph. It is expected to be 86 degrees Sunday with northeast winds about 17 mph, with gusts up to 24 mph.

n As of 3:50 p.m. interstates 5 and 210 are open in both directions, according to California Highway Patrol officials.

n Erratic winds in the Newhall Pass concern fire officials who are fighting a stubborn flank of the fire in dry brush a few miles southwest of Santa Clarita. The fire is moving toward Old Sierra Hwy, as of 3:15 p.m. this afternoon.

n At 2 p.m. state Highway 126, which is now the only road in and out of Santa Clarita, is jammed and authorities are considering a road closure, said Los Angeles County Deputy D. Winslow. No alternatives routes are open at this time, he said.

n Six Flags Magic Mountain closed at noon Saturday because of area freeway closures, according to Sue Carpenter, park spokeswoman. Carpenter said the park is scheduled to be open Sunday during regular hours but is subject to closure if fire conditions continue.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is not in danger of the fires as it is upwind from the actively burning zones.

n At 2:11 p.m., the California Highway Patrol closed Interstates 5 and 210 and state Highway 14. The CHP will release more information about lifting road closures at its 6 p.m. press conference. The southbound I-5 and the northbound Interstate 405 at the state Highway 118 will likely remain closed, a CHP official said.

n City of Santa Clarita officials are keeping a close eye on how the Sylmar firestorm will affect the Santa Clarita Valley, spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said.

"We are able to see what is happening first hand and as things impact Santa Clarita we are reporting them via our Web site," Ortiz said. "We’ve started text alerts where people can sign up on our Web site and people can get text alerts as (the information) comes in."

Ortiz said she was advised that if winds continue blowing the the current direction, the SCV will be unharmed.

"If a switch comes, we’re in trouble," she said. "We are being safe, taking precautions and are prepared. We are doing everything we can so if something does happen we’re ready for it."

n The College of the Canyons Valencia and Canyon Country campuses cancelled about 20 percent of their classes because instructors couldn’t get to class. College officials shut down the Canyon Country campus for the day at 2 p.m., said spokeswoman Sue Bozman. Instructors who were unable to reach the area teach all classes scheduled for today.

The COC football game at Bakersfield at 1 p.m. will kick off at 3 p.m. and the women’s basketball game scheduled against Long Beach was cancelled.

The student orchestra concert scheduled for the college’s Performing Arts Center tonight was cancelled and will be rescheduled, Bozeman said.

College officials will continue to monitor the fire-related situation surrounding the area and will update the information Saturday night, and again Sunday.

Deputies from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station set up an incident command center at College of the Canyons.

The college’s Web site address is

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says some 500 mobile homes have been destroyed in a wildfire in the Sylmar area.

He also says the fire has grown to 6,500 acres and is 10 percent contained.

UPDATE 9:38 a.m. Saturday:
A wind-blasted wildfire tore through the city's northern foothills early Saturday, sending thousands of residents fleeing in the dark, forcing a hospital to evacuate. destroying an untold number of homes, and shutting down traffic through the Newhall Pass in both directions.

The fire broke out late Friday in the foothill community of Sylmar on the edge of the Angeles National Forest and quickly spread as it was driven by Santa Ana wind gusting as high as 76 mph.

"We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting."

Part of the area's network of highways including Interstate 5 through the Newhall Pass was shut down.

Officials ordered huge evacuations in the Sylmar, Knollwood and Porter Ranch communities as the fire jumped two freeways, closing the highways and forcing evacuees to take surface streets.

"Near hurricane winds made it very difficult for firefighters," Los Angeles Fire deputy chief Mario Rueda said.

To the west, firefighters were still battling a separate wildfire that destroyed more than 110 homes in Santa Barbara.

The Los Angeles blaze threatened at least 1,000 buildings, fire spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said.

Villaraigosa said the fire brought down some power lines and could cause rolling blackouts. He urged residents throughout the city to conserve power.

One resident was hospitalized in serious condition with burns over 60 percent of his body, Kelley said. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Flames struck the edge of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center campus shortly after midnight, causing an electricity outage that forced officials to evacuate two dozen critical patients. About 200 other patients stayed behind.

Several administrative buildings were damaged.

The hospital's power and backup generators failed, and emergency room staff had to keep critical patients alive with hand powered ventilators. Twenty-eight people, including 10 neonatal babies, were rushed out by ambulance to another hospital.

"It was totally dark." said hospital spokeswoman Carla Nino. "There was dense smoke."

Power was restored at the hospital after three hours.

Some people refused to leave their homes, grabbing water hoses to defend their homes, but others left even before mandatory evacuation orders were issued.

"I can see the smoke. It's terrible. I'm going to take my dog and go," Dorothy Boyer told The Associated Press from her home late Friday.

More than 600 firefighters struggled to protect homes threatened by flying embers. Because of the rough terrain in the forest, they were relying on water-dropping helicopters to tackle flames. Authorities said some aircraft were grounded during the night by the savage wind, but they expected six airplanes and a dozen helicopters to attack the fire during the day.

The shifting wind pushed the fire uphill toward the San Gabriel Mountains and downhill toward homes, sometimes skipping across canyons. It also jumped Interstate 5 and the 210 Freeway, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down sections of both freeways and some connecting roads.

Flying embers ignited sporadic spot fires and firefighters were patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods "making sure these small fires don't turn into big fires," Rueda said.

If the fire continues marching west, it could be slowed by a fire break that resulted from a wildfire which burned about 14,000-acres near Porter Ranch last month, authorities said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. One resident suffered serious burns, Kelley said.

The blaze also charred habitat for the endangered California condor and several hiking trails, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea said.

About 80 miles to the west, an uncontained blaze in the Santa Barbara community of Montecito had forced the evacuation of more than 5,400 homes since it started Thursday night, exploding through dry brush and vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees. About 800 firefighters were battling the fire at the wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, and they were expected to make significant progress through Saturday morning, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman.

"There's plenty of hot material still left out there," he said. "But things could change in a hurry if the winds pick up."

Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small college suffered major damage in Montecito, a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey.

The fire quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and parts of Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter.

"That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. "The whole sky was full of embers. There was nothing that they could do. It was just too much."

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said up to 200 homes may have been destroyed or damaged.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

At least 13 people were injured in Montecito. A 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said.

Montecito, known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities. The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953.

Montecito suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.

Denise Petski, Alicia Chang, Bob Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles and Thomas Watkins and Amy Taxin in Montecito contributed to this report.


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