A wildfire whipped by the treacherous Santa Ana winds jumped two freeways northwest of Los Angeles overnight Friday, consuming more than 11 square miles, damaging at least 31 homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, authorities said.
“This is a very dynamic fire,” Los Angeles Fire chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters Friday, warning that the fire — dubbed the Saddleridge fire — was devouring 800 acres an hour. The blaze erupted late Thursday along the northern tier of the San Fernando Valley.
Terrazas said the fire, as of Friday morning, was “zero” contained. The most immediate task, he said, was to use helicopters and “super scooper,” water-carrying, fixed-wing aircraft to establish some fire lines and stop it from spreading.
Authorities on Friday reported two people have died: A man in his 50s went into cardiac arrest and died near the Saddleridge fire.
One person was killed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, in the Sandalwood fire that earlier swept through a hilltop mobile home park, destroying 74 structures and damaging 16 others in Calimesa.
The chief said some 1,000 area firefighters were battling the Saddleridge fire. “Nobody is going home right away,” he said. “This event is going to take a few days.”
Los Angeles police chief Michel Moore said the evacuation orders covered 23,000 residences, or around 100,000 people.
He urged residences to evacuate the areas immediately when ordered. The chief said people “fighting the fire with garden hoses” only endanger themselves and first responders who are trying to clear the area.
Authorities said the Saddleridge blaze started as a brush fire in Sylmar, the northernmost neighborhood of Los Angeles, and quickly spread, driven by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that sweep down from the deserts and across coastal Southern California.
“This is an extremely dynamic, high wind driven fire,” the LAFD said in an advisory.
In the Santa Susana Mountains near Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles neighborhood, the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility was evacuated and surrounded by firefighters and engines from both LA county and city departments fighting fires “in and around” the facility, a SoCal Gas update said.
A red flag warning was in effect in Southern California through Saturday evening, with winds expected to reach as high as 60 mph and some gusts hitting 70 mph in the mountains. Red flag warnings are issued when warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.
The fire forced the closing of numerous roadways, including the 210 Freeway and the 5 Freeway, causing a massive traffic jam.
Hundreds of truckers were waylaid by the chaos, unable to get past highway patrol checkpoints on some of the region’s busiest interstates.
“Everybody’s packages are going to be late,” said Dee Carter, of Aurora, Colorado, who was hauling Amazon deliveries from a warehouse in Fontana, California, to Sacramento.
Carter, whose big rig was parked by the side of the 118 Freeway, was trying without luck to reroute his way around the closures. Then suddenly, as he was settling down to make steak and eggs in his sleeper cab for breakfast, the freeway reopened.
For Eyad Jarjour, it was not the first time that a wildfire had crept within feet of the hillside home on Jolette Avenue near the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles where he has lived for 14 years.
But this time it burned two of his neighbor’s homes to the ground only feet away on the quiet cul-de-sac and crept into his backyard. He said he escaped with his family, Including two elderly inlaws, at the first hint his home was in danger, about 9:30 p. m. PST Thursday. When he returned at 3 a.m., his neighbors’ houses were in flames.
“It took us about 10 minutes to evacuate,“ Jarjour said. But it hurts. “These neighbors are our family… It’s a cul-de-sac. We know each other. We care about each other.“
He said he got out with just a few necessities, important papers and bills, based on past evacuation experience.
He left again and was relieved when he returned at 10 a.m. Friday morning to discover his house of been saved. The air was still thick with smoke and ash, fire crews at the ready. But the danger had appeared to have passed.
He inspected the remains of one of the houses that had burned to the ground. Water squirted from a broken pipe and flames from an open gas line were still visible. A burned out 1960s classic muscle car was parked next to the house.
Tragic as it was, the wildfire was not unexpected by Jarjour. “We expect this to happen because we live in a fire hazard area,“ he said.
Another family on Jolette Avenue did not wait to get out when they saw flames. A house had caught fire at the end of the street.
“I saw the house burning and I said ‘Oh my God,’” recalled Rose Long as she surveyed the damage Friday. Their house had been saved.
There wasn’t much time to get out. “It was going so fast,” said her son George Long.
In Calimesa, the Sandalwood fire erupted when the driver of a commercial trash truck dumped a smoldering load to prevent the vehicle from catching fire.
Dry grass quickly ignited and winds gusting to 50 mph blew the fire into the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park about 75 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The park has 110 home sites and was built in 1958, according to its website. Fire officials were investigating what caused the trash in the truck to catch fire in Calimesa.
The two fires burned as power was restored to most of the nearly 2 million residents in the northern part of the state who lost electricity after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. switched it off Wednesday to prevent a repeat of the past two years when its equipment sparked deadly, destructive wildfires during windy weather.
When Gabe Genson got out of class Thursday night and drove home to his hilly Granada Hills neighborhood, he was shocked at what he encountered.
“It was literally panic up here” Genson said. “The fire move so fast it was insane.”
He said his family had lived through two previous fires, but this one moved in quicker than the others. He said he monitored television news when he got home and as soon as they learned it had jumped the Golden State (5) Freeway. they knew they had to get out.
“There was no fire department, no cops, by the time I saw the flames in my backyard.“ He said at that point, the fire was less than 100 yards away. “You’re seeing flames coming down the hill.“
He packed up with his parents and their 15-year-old mini schnauzer Spot and left their Tuscan Drive home. He said they went to his grandparents’ house.
“We got back here at 7 a,m.” said Genson, 22, a University of Arizona senior who is taking an LSAT prep class to apply for law school. “I had a good sense the house was OK.” And it was.
A McDonald’s restaurant in the Granada Hills section of Los Angeles became a de facto evacuation center into Friday morning as residents fleeing the wildfire jammed the normally closed dining room and stayed all night.
About 70 to 80 patrons waited out the evacuation orders in a dining room that is usually closed at midnight – with only a drive-thru window providing overnight service, said manager Lidia Hinojosa.
The McDonald’s, owned by the widow of a firefighter, did its best to serve the community in the disaster offering food to firefighters, police and other first responders free of charge. Lots of the food went straight to the fire lines.
“I saw some big orders – some taking 30 or 40 sandwiches at a time,” Hinojosa said. The restaurant managed to stay open all day with most of its workers and hadn’t run out of food.