Santa Susana residents Edgar and Lynn Wilson were awakened at 3 a.m. Wednesday by the fury of powerful Santa Ana winds whipping through their hillside neighborhood.
"We sleep with our windows open, and the wind just suddenly increased," Lynn Wilson said. "I looked up and saw papers on my husband's desk falling on the floor. As he walked over to straighten them up, he could see the whole hillside lit up, and he said, 'Oh, my God.' "
The fire erupted about 1:30 a.m. along Santa Susana Pass Road just over the Los Angeles County line. Fanned by blustery, swirling winds, the blaze charged up the rock-studded hills in Ventura County two hours later, engulfing a Los Angeles city firetruck and seriously injuring four firefighters.
"Fire was everywhere, and the wind was blowing like crazy," said Ventura County Battalion Chief Frank Tinsley. "We were just getting set up on Lilac Lane when the Los Angeles firetruck got burned up. We had several engines in the area, and that one just happened to be overrun by the fire. The cab was completely gutted and the windows were blown out."
The injured firefighters were taken to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, where they were listed in critical condition, officials said.
By 6:30 a.m., more than 300 acres along the Santa Susana Pass had been scorched, forcing the closure of the eastbound lanes of the Simi Valley Freeway and halting Metrolink and Amtrak train service through the area. The fire continued to flare up throughout the day, knocking out power lines as flames came within a few feet of luxury homes.
"It burned right up to our property line," said Santa Susana resident Barbara Peters, who feared that embers might ignite a propane tank in the back yard of her two-story home on Mira Montes.
"We had six firefighters here with fire hoses right out front," she said. "If it hadn't been for them, we would have been a goner."
Peters said she packed her 1993 Saturn with family belongings just in case.
"I emptied a whole filing cabinet with pictures. I was ready," she said. "I had a suitcase packed to last me three days."
Bryan Stark, who rents a room from Peters, said he used a garden hose to water down the house's wooden deck and fence to keep them safe from cinders emitted by the wildfire.
"It looked like the sun was going to rise because the hillside was just a glow," he said.
Although hundreds of Santa Susana and Box Canyon residents were advised to evacuate their homes, most chose to stay and fend off flames with garden hoses and sprinklers. Others grabbed shovels and hoes, and worked alongside firefighters and hand crews to clear dry chaparral and brush.
Bill and Nancy Fitzwater, who have lived at the top of a ridge on Mesa Drive for 17 years, said they did not abandon their home when a similar fire blew through the hills on Halloween Day in 1981 and would not do so now.
"We've lived through this before," said Bill Fitzwater, noting that a sprinkler system is installed on his roof.
In nearby Box Canyon, resident Allen D'Orhellas filled trash cans and buckets with water to wet down his house.
D'Orhellas, a home builder who constructed his home in the canyon 12 years ago, said there have been several fires in the area over the years.
"We get some really strong winds up here," he said. "This is really scary."
By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, more than 1,500 acres had been scorched in the Santa Susana and Chatsworth areas as 700 firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, authorities said. No additional injuries or property damage were reported.
A 27-year-old transient was being questioned by Los Angeles police in connection with the fire, said Sgt. John Ahrens.
In addition to winds gusting up to 40 m.p.h., Tinsley said firefighters and hand crews were hampered by the steep, rocky, Santa Susana hills.
"With all these rocks, you can't get your dozers and hand crews in there," Tinsley said. "You just have to go where the fire is and work around all these obstacles. It's really difficult."
Although evacuees on the Ventura County side were directed to nearby Simi Valley High School, no one had used the facility by late Wednesday afternoon, and Red Cross workers said they would probably close the shelter.
"If we don't get anybody tonight, then we're out of here," volunteer Brad Knight said.
Wednesday's fire disrupted Amtrak and Metrolink train service, with passengers having to be bused between Simi Valley and Chatsworth.
Peter Hidalgo, a Metrolink spokesman, said two early morning Moorpark commuter trains bound for Union Station in downtown Los Angeles had to be canceled. He said Wednesday's fire had burned near a mile-long train tunnel in Santa Susana, making passage nearly impossible.
"Because of the heavy smoke, we felt there was the potential for problems," he said. "We wanted to keep our passengers safe, so we decided not to operate the trains."
He said evening westbound trains would be able to travel through to Simi Valley and Moorpark. Metrolink and Amtrak officials did not expect any problems with train service today.
Lori Circle, a spokeswoman with Rockwell International, said the company closed its Santa Susana Field Laboratory on Wednesday as a precaution. The lab, located in the hills southeast of Simi Valley, builds and tests rocket engines for NASA and private contractors.
Circle said the 800-employee lab was not damaged by the fire. But, she said, "we sent everyone home because we didn't know what was going to happen with the winds."
She said about 30 employees from Rockwell's private fire and security service assisted Ventura and Los Angeles county firefighters, helping fill water-carrying helicopters at the hilltop lab. She said Rockwell workers also served as backup personnel at the Santa Susana fire station.