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Fighting fire with fire

Crews attempt to box blaze into canyon

Posted: November 17, 2008 10:01 p.m.
Updated: November 18, 2008 4:55 a.m.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department's "Dozer Team 4" and a U.S. Forest Service Hotshot crew battle the Sayre Fire in Placerita Canyon.

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Firefighters from several departments spent most of Monday cutting a fire break and planning a backfire near Placerita Canyon Road east of Highway 14.

Their plan to fight the Sayre Fire is simple - give it nothing to burn.

The Sayre Fire, which sparked at 10:30 p.m Friday, quickly grew to 10,077 acres and swallowed more than 600 buildings by 6 a.m. on Monday, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said.

The fire ravaged Sylmar and embers from the blaze blew into Placerita Canyon sparking spot fires that engulfed the dry vegetation in the Bear Divide, he said.

"We are trying to box the fire into this canyon," said John Livermore, county fire dozer operator. The strategy keeps the fire from advancing west toward homes and allows it to strip fuel out of the densely forested area, he said.

Placerita Canyon Road, Highway 14 and Interstate 5 all play a part in trapping the fire, Padilla said.

"Interstate 5 and Highway 14 are natural fire breaks," he said. Cutting additional fire breaks with heavy equipment keeps the fire contained.

Wind blew away any hopes of containment during the weekend, Livermore said.

"The wind was a killer over the weekend," he said. High winds blew the blaze directly at the firefighters positioned at Placerita Canyon Road. "The fire chased us off this ridge," he said.

Dying winds on Monday allowed fire crews to take back their position less than a mile south of Placerita Canyon Road and take a stand against the Sayre Fire, Livermore said.

Taming a wildland fire means more than cutting fire breaks, Padilla said after firefighters set a backfire Saturday night near the Newhall Pass.

"When the back fire meets up with the leading edge of the fire, there will be no fuel left to burn. The fire burns itself out," he said.

A dozer struggled to topple dense vegetation less than a mile south of Placerita Canyon Road. The fire breaks scarred the back country, but are necessary to keep homes safe, Livermore said.

"We want to fight the fire on our terms," he said.

Water and fire-retardant drops in the back country are difficult, and fighting a fire on foot in the back country is dangerous, he said.

"There aren't many escape routes if we get overrun by the flames," he said.

The terms of engagement also mean fire retardant drops parallel to the fire breaks in order to slow the flames.

Large aircraft buzzed above tree tops dumping fire retardant along the fire breaks and making some drops directly on the flames.

The final part of the plan begins once the fire breaks are cut and the air drops dump enough retardant to control the flames, Livermore said.

"Then we will light a backfire and get rid of all this fuel," he said.

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