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Fire Spurs Evacuations Near Acton

Residents of hundreds of houses flee the swift-moving blaze. Firefighters are now battling flames on three fronts in L.A. County.

July 21, 2004|Eric Malnic and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

Several hundred homes were evacuated Tuesday when a wind-driven wildfire broke out near Acton and moved rapidly north and east, the third major wildfire to break out in the mountains of northern Los Angeles County in a week.

"We've got a real fight on our hands," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Mike McCormick. "We're attacking it with everything we've got -- planes, bulldozers and firefighters -- but it's still moving."

The firefighters' nemeses -- dry, erratic winds and temperatures peaking close to 100 degrees -- have plagued fire-ravaged mountain areas for a week and are expected to continue. While property damage so far has been modest, the fires have forced thousands to flee the flames, closed freeways and kept firefighters on the lines for a week.

"See all the smoke? My home is right up there," said a nervous Cristal Herron, 42, who had just fled her ridgeline home Tuesday with her 13-year-old daughter, a photo album and a home insurance policy. "My husband said, you guys leave right now. It was women and children first, I guess.... He's still up there. He's a crazy person."

The fire ranged across a series of steep canyons and advanced in the sparsely populated hills south and east of Acton, a small railroad town beside the dry Santa Clara riverbed, about 10 miles southwest of Palmdale. By late Tuesday night, more than 5,000 acres had burned and the fire had reached the edge of Angeles National Forest.

About 800 firefighters, 85 fire engines and, during daylight, 14 helicopters and five planes battled the blaze. There was no containment.

One mobile home and possibly two other structures were destroyed, said California Forestry Department Capt. Jim Dellamonica.

The good news was that the fire was moving toward an area burned in 1980 and 1994.

"This fire looks like it may burn into those fires," Dellamonica said. If that happened, he said, the fire would have less fuel.

Officials didn't know what started the so-called Crown fire, which broke out about 1:20 p.m. in Arrastre Canyon. With winds gusting at 25 mph, the blaze leapfrogged from ridge to ridge.

Most of the mandatory evacuations were in Aliso Canyon on the east side of Acton. Several of those homes were cut off when the bridge on Aliso Canyon Road burned and collapsed.

Some other thoroughfares in the area, including Soledad Canyon Road between Acton and the Angeles Forest Highway over the San Gabriel Mountains, were closed by smoke and flames.

A Red Cross evacuation center was set up in Palmdale.

Firefighters said the flames initially threatened a shelter on the outskirts of Acton housing close to 1,000 animals. The shelter is run by the nonprofit Dedication and Everlasting Love To Animals (DELTA) organization. Firefighters were posted at the shelter, and the fire eventually moved away from it.

The fire knocked out several high-voltage transmission lines near Acton just as the hot weather led Californians to set a peak power-consumption record of 44,360 megawatts, officials said. The loss of the lines during record usage forced Southern California Edison Co. to reduce power to 108,000 customers, who volunteered to shut down air conditioners and agricultural pumps.

Clouds of smoke towered thousands of feet in the air, prompting a health advisory because of poor air quality throughout Los Angeles County.

The county Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service sent about 800 firefighters to the blaze. Many of them were diverted from two other wildfires that were largely controlled Tuesday night after burning for days in the backcountry of northwest Los Angeles County.

Near Santa Clarita, the Foothill fire was about two-thirds contained Tuesday evening after charring more than 6,000 acres of brush and forcing the evacuation of about 1,600 homes. Most of the residents of Fair Oaks, Placerita Canyon and Sand Canyon were back in their homes by Tuesday night, and firefighters said no houses or business buildings had been lost.

Officials said the Pine fire, near Lake Hughes, should be fully contained by tonight. The blaze burned for a week along the San Andreas Fault, searing about 17,500 acres of brushland and destroying three homes and 21 outbuildings.

In Riverside County, the 3,667-acre Melton fire near Hemet was fully contained Tuesday morning after burning 14 outbuildings, 14 vehicles, four mobile homes and a travel trailer.

The National Weather Service said the hot, dry weather is expected to continue in the fire areas and the inland valleys for at least a week, with high temperatures in the 90s through Thursday, increasing to about 100 over the weekend.

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Times staff writer Nancy Rivera Brooks contributed to this report.

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