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Fighting Flames, Fears

Fire Burns Over Hills Toward Subdivision Near Chatsworth

October 28, 2003|Holly J. Wolcott, Sharon Bernstein and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

As helicopters pounded the flames with buckets of water, and weary ground crews crept along charred rugged hills, fire authorities acknowledged a frustrating, see-saw battle against a 90,000-acre sea of flames in Simi Valley on Monday.

"This hasn't been easy," said Shasta County firefighter Dave DeMars, one of nearly 1,000 firefighters who watched grimly as 100-foot flames crept over the Santa Susana Mountains toward a gated subdivision near Chatsworth. "The winds keep shifting and changing and these canyons are really tough to maneuver."

Firefighters hoped to stop the blaze at the Los Angeles County line all day Monday, but after an afternoon of success, lost the fight near sunset. Residents of the exclusive Indian Falls community just north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway evacuated their estates on a boulder-studded hillside, and residents of a nearby condo development along Iverson Road also fled the flames.

For much of the day, fire crews conducted a fierce battle at Corriganville Regional Park, joining air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers to confront a huge blaze that jumped the Ronald Reagan Freeway before dawn. To the south, firefighters protected the equestrian community of Santa Susana Knolls and an eclectic mix of aging cabins and million-dollar homes in a region known as Box Canyon.

The day's first stand came before dawn at the Hope Town development of 200 homes adjacent to the Corriganville park in easternmost Simi Valley. Six fire trucks rolled into a 50-yard-wide strip between the freeway and the houses.

"The flames were just shooting up over my neighbor's house, so we ran to the car and drove away as fast as we could," said area resident Jami Manning. "It was just a nightmare."

Others stayed and fought the fire with garden hoses, side by side with trained professionals.

"I got my hoses and tried to water it down, crying 'Please God, don't let it burn,' " said Nalyn Wiratunga, 48, a manager of information technology at Blue Cross of California. "It was really bad, but I was going to fight until the last drop of water came out of my hose."

A few hours later, the Hope Town neighborhood was nearly back to normal as residents praised the firefighters' bravery and seemed to be enjoying the best show in suburbia. Some peered through binoculars at a nearby hillside of flames, while others drank beer from sidewalk chairs.

Jay Tandon, 54, president of an electronics manufacturing company and a resident of the community since 1987, said the fire was the third to threaten his neighborhood. Despite repeated warnings, Tandon said he had no desire to leave and had plenty of insurance to cover natural disasters.

"I've been through earthquakes and fires," Tandon said. "And it's worth living here."

Joe Luna, a Ventura County Fire Department spokesman, said crews were prepared to work through the night to try to stop the fire, and he hoped cooler evening temperatures and calmer winds would help.

By nightfall however, the flames had crossed the border. Fearing just such a turn, Los Angeles County police and fire crews warned them to get out of the path of the approaching fire. Homeowners packed their cars and fled several communities as adult film actress Asia Carrera left her Chatsworth townhouse after packing clothes, a computer and two cats into her metallic-blue Corvette.

"I've been through it before, but this [fire] is a hell of a lot bigger," Carrera said. "I didn't sleep at all last night. I sat by the window and looked at the sky glowing red."

Chatsworth resident Kathleen Lazaysse, 43, evacuated her condominium about noon, and then watched the fire burn on hilltops about three-quarters of a mile from her home.

"The fire department and the police rolled up to our property and said, 'You have to get out, you have to leave now,' " Lazaysse said, adding that the police stayed until she left. "I tried to stay calm. Otherwise, what can you do? As long as you get out with your life, what else can you do?"

After being advised to get out Monday morning, Nathan and Gloria Harris grabbed a few necessities and keepsakes from their mobile home park in Woolsey Canyon and headed to an evacuation center in Chatsworth.

"At this point it is in God's hands," said Gloria Harris, 56.

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